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May 6, 2002

Stein examines old objects with new technology

By Rachel Robertson


What relationships exist between chemistry and art? This semester, Renee Stein and Jon Rienstra-Kiracofe challenged students with that question in a “Perspectives on Chemistry” course (taught by Senior Lecturer Preetha Ram), for which the pair gave five guest lectures.

Many of the students answered the question with a resounding “I have no clue.” But that was before Stein and Rienstra-Kiracofe enlightened them: artists use chemistry to make art; chemistry deteriorates art; conservators use chemistry to clean art, as well as to verify or authenticate it. And these are just a few examples.

As a practical demonstration for the class, the pair use infrared spectroscopy, a technique with which the chemistry students were familiar but perhaps had never seen applied to artwork. It can reveal the composition of a material—such as the paint covering a 3,000-year-old coffin.

Stein applies the technique in her work as a conservator at the Carlos Museum, using an instrument called a Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometer, named for the mathematician who developed the transform system to convert data to a line spectrum. By adding a microscope, the FTIR can be used to study very small samples (the size of a grain of salt), which is necessary when sampling from art objects.

Stein’s collaboration with Rienstra-Kiracofe, lecturer in chemistry, grew out of their introduction at a reception for the very FTIR instrument used in their lectures. The instrument was given to Stein by a former mentor and relocated to Emory through the collaborative efforts of the Office of the Provost and the departments of physics, chemistry and environmental studies, as well as the College Science Council and General Science Committee. It is housed in the lab of Sidney Perkowitz, Candler Professor of Physics.

Stein came to the museum because of the Egyptian collection and will use infrared spectroscopy in her research on coffins and other funerary objects. Her work is adding to the museum’s knowledge of its holdings—for example, whether certain materials are ancient or modern) as well as providing information useful for preserving and restoring the objects.

“It’s not just research for the sake of research, but research for a purpose,” said Thérèse O’Gorman, head of conservation at the Carlos.

Stein’s interest in research has enhanced the teaching mission of the museum’s Parsons Conservation Laboratory, establishing valuable connections with scientists on campus and providing opportunities for students interested in doing scientific study of ancient objects.

“The reason Renee is so valuable,” O’Gorman said, “is that sometimes the approach to testing in science is a little different than the approach to testing in art, and I think that she creates that link.”

In her quest for a career combining chemistry and the study of antiquities, senior Heather Abbott has been able to take advantage of the conservation laboratory and Stein’s expertise. After reading an article that sparked her interest, Abbott sought guidance from O’Gorman, which led to an independent project with Stein in collaboration with Dobbs Professor of Inorganic Chemistry Luigi Marzilli and Senior Research Associate Kenneth Hardcastle. The project involved using X-ray diffraction to identify red pigments of Carlos objects.

“Being given the opportunity to work with artifacts from the Carlos Museum has been amazing,” Abbott said. “Not only have I had the opportunity to learn about a variety of techniques used in the analysis of objects, but I’ve also been able to work with a multitude of individuals in each department.”

The presence of conservators on campus adds an educational element that Stein hopes students will take advantage of. “Conservation by its nature is a very interdisciplinary field,” she said. “So our presence, and the presence of the lab, can be a crossroads. We want to make it possible for students to utilize those aspects and for us to expand upon what we can do and what we can learn by being a part of the University