Using Science to Save the Arts | Butler Stories

Using Science to Save the Arts

Rachel Stern

from Fall 2019

Michael Samide doesn’t have a background in art. Well, if you want to get technical—and the Butler University Professor of Chemistry likes to get technical—there was that one art history class. A British guy taught the class. It was after lunch, the room was dark, a slide projector was involved, and a fan would go on. Then, like clockwork, Samide would take a nap.

He ended up working in chemistry, which he figured meant he could steer clear of those sleepy afternoons. But after about 12 years of conducting one type of research at Butler, a visit from the new Senior Conservation Scientist at the Conservation Science Lab of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields piqued Samide’s interest. Greg Smith had come to talk to Butler Chemistry faculty and students and explained that Newfields’ lab combines art history, science, analytical techniques, and research.

Samide was intrigued.

“I realized how lucky we were at Butler to have this lab 400 yards away,” Samide says. “My mind was blown after the presentation. I realized this unique, exciting realm takes all the techniques I have learned and applies them to solve real-world problems. It was time to learn something new.”

What has followed has been a seven-year partnership between the Conservation Science Lab at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields and Butler’s Chemistry Department. From student internships, to research collaborations, to published papers, to lectures across the globe, the partnership has flourished since Smith walked into the chemistry classroom back in 2012.

The museum’s Conservation Science Lab started in 2012 and uses scientific tools to study the materials of art. The lab works in tandem with the conservation staff to make sure the materials and methods that are being used are effective as well as safe for the artwork. The team also collaborates with the curatorial department to analyze the different materials comprising a work of art.

“Locked up in the chemistry of objects are often the answers to who made this, how old is it, has it changed appearance, is it even real or is it fake,” Smith says.

Partially funded by a $2.6 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, the facility operates out of a spacious, 3,000-square-foot analytical and research lab on the first floor of Newfields. As one of only about 10 museum conservation labs like this in the country, the work performed at Newfields can have a significant impact beyond the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Smith, the museum’s sole full-time lab employee, relies on interns and partnerships to assist in his efforts.

The Butler team was a natural fit, he says. They immediately added their chemistry expertise, working on research projects with faculty and students on varied topics such as pollutants, curricular development, and dye synthesis.

Samide and Smith have focused a great deal of their research on how materials used in museums impact art. There is a plastic that museums use for gallery casings that, after a great deal of research, they found was tarnishing silver. To date, they have published two papers, and are working on a third on the potentially harmful effects.

The partnership provides numerous benefits to the museum, but it also provides important experiential learning opportunities for Butler students. Heidi Kastenholz ’19 started at Butler as a Chemistry major certain she wanted to be an optometrist. She heard about the Chemistry of Art course that had a short study abroad component, so she signed up.

The course focused on how pigments are made chemically. When she returned from traveling, Kastenholz did a Butler Summer Institute research project on one specific pigment. After she graduated, she was offered an internship with the Library of Congress in their conservation science department, and her goal now is to become a conservation scientist in a museum lab.

“I learned how applicable science was,” she says. “I never thought about science and art as things that were related.”

That is exactly what drew Samide to this area of chemistry, despite his shaky memories of art history class. His research used to have very little application. Now, it has a real impact on what is placed into gallery spaces, what materials should be used inside a museum, and how museums think about preserving historic pieces of art.

“You would be surprised how every area of chemistry has something to do with art,” Samide says. “The best artists are using science and the best scientists are very artistic people. It is about the coming together of the two disciplines, rather than telling people they are two separate things.”