Conserving a museum's holdings is a blend of art and science. Analytical chemists have explained why a dramatic sky disappeared from Winslow Homer's For to Be a Farmer's Boy. Materials scientists have unearthed the sources of color in ancient Chinese jades. Environmental engineers have uncovered the reasons behind the faded brilliance of Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
On Wednesday, May 20, at 8 p.m. in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, Katherine T. Faber, the Simon Ramo Professor of Materials Science at Caltech, will examine how science serves art in a museum setting, and discuss how bridges to universities can be built.
Q: What do you do?
A: I am a materials scientist who focuses on the mechanical behavior of brittle materials. Ceramic materials are especially attractive for use at very high temperatures, such as those needed for energy-related applications—engine components, catalyst supports, or coatings for turbines in aerospace or power generation.
And when I say "mechanical behavior," I'm largely interested in how materials fracture. I'm pretty fortunate to be able to break things for a living. But I have also discovered through the years that some of the materials and structures that I want to study don't exist. That has forced me to move into ceramic processing as well. That way my students and I can understand the link between how the materials are made and how they respond.
Our recent work has focused on porous materials. Historically, one would not want pores in brittle materials, because they act as flaws, and therefore as sources of failure. More recently, porosity is desirable in ceramics, for high-temperature filters or for biomedical scaffolds that allow cell or bone ingrowth, to name just two examples.
Q: How does that relate to art conservation, which is the subject of your talk?
A: Conservation studies have actually become an important part of my career. Objects of cultural heritage are made up of the same materials that we study as materials scientists. The phenomena that occur in cultural heritage materials are of particular interest—one needs to understand degradation, such as fading or cracking, in order to preserve these objects. The merit of these studies reaches beyond the art community. We all benefit from these investigations. So will our children, if we continue to study and protect our cultural heritage.
Engineering disciplines are generally very forward thinking and future-oriented. We say, "What materials can we make that will improve our future?" But it is also of value to take our knowledge of materials and look back. One aspect of this art-related work that has been appealing to students is the realization that the expertise that they are developing can be used to solve many different kinds of problems. It's not just about the next photovoltaic or the next superalloy—their talents and skills can be put to use in technical art history. Ultimately, I would like to develop partnerships here in Southern California that will offer Caltech students the same opportunities that the students at Northwestern University have had with the Art Institute of Chicago. It's simply a matter of finding the right partners in the broad array of museums we have here.
Q: How did you get into this line of work?
A: Quite by chance. About 12 years ago, I was approached by staff from the Art Institute of Chicago, which had just been given funds to hire its very first conservation scientist. The museum had a very large conservation department, but it did not have a PhD-level scientist on board. The staff was trying to anticipate the needs of this person, who had yet to be named. They were hoping to identify contacts in the academic community for their future hire, and they had heard about my department's reputation. I was the chair of Northwestern's Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the time, so I was the natural person to visit. When asked if we might be a good link for their scientist, my response was an immediate "Yes!"
And indeed, a year later the Art Institute hired a fantastic conservation scientist, Francesca Casadio, and we started to work together immediately. We've collaborated on ancient Chinese jades and Meissen ceramics. I also became the matchmaker, if you will, who linked other engineering faculty at Northwestern to the Art Institute. In 2013, Francesca and I went on to found the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts, a partnership funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, extending our research to museums around the U.S. But it was all serendipity.
Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech's iTunes U site.