Art as Evidence: The Scientific Examination of Works of Art

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 2:30 PM

Art as Evidence: The Scientific Examination of Works of Art

Karen Trentelmen
Getty Conservation Institute

March 24 2017 at 2:30pm in C9000


What does a scientist do in a museum? The scientific study of works of art addresses questions related conservation (material identification, degradation processes, compatibility of treatment methods), curatorial (artist's technique, workshop practice, attribution/provenance), or material (physical properties and behavior) issues. Answering these questions frequently requires detailed analysis of cultural heritage materials and the reconstruction of historic technologies. The precious nature of works of art creates unique analytical challenges, often necessitating the development of new analytical approaches or specialized instrumentation. A premium is placed on those techniques that either can be used completely non-invasively (i.e., without the removal of any sample, such as X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopies), or can provide new and vital information with the removal of only minimal amounts of material (such as trace analysis via inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) or chemical state information via X-ray absorption near edge spectroscopy (XANES)). Underlying all the work is the common goal of furthering the understanding of the materials and methods used in the creation, interpretation and conservation of works of art.

This talk will present examples of research projects on objects in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, ranging from Egyptian mummies, to medieval manuscripts, to ancient Athenian pottery, to paintings by Rembrandt.


Karen Trentelman is a senior scientist and leader of the Technical Studies research group at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). Current areas of research include: the materials and firing conditions used in the production of ancient Athenian pottery, revealing hidden features in paintings and manuscripts using non-invasive spectroscopic and imaging technologies, and fostering the integration of imaging and analytical data. She is also active in the education and training of scientists and conservators in the application of non-invasive analytical techniques to the study of works of art. She received a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Cornell University and carried out postdoctoral research at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois, Chicago. She was a research scientist at the Detroit Institute of Arts for ten years before joining the GCI in 2004.