State-of-the-art tools and increasingly sophisticated laboratory procedures have made the science behind art and its conservation a fine art itself.
For West Virginia University Technical Art History students, the on-campus opportunity for hands-on learning and a disciplined approach to scientific methods gives them the advanced skills needed to hit the ground running after graduation.
“Our program brings together science courses that prepare students to understand material structures, studio art courses to ensure manual dexterity and provide experience using various art media, and situates this knowledge within an art-historical framework that emphasizes placing objects and materials into historical contexts,” said Rhonda Reymond, department coordinator and associate professor of art history. “The scientific skills learned in the degree program prepare our students for pre-program internships, graduate school and careers in conservation and historic preservation differently from those in traditional art history or museum studies programs.”
Hanna Szczepanowska, assistant professor of technical art history, is a material scientist who specializes in analysis of cultural heritage material. She has decades of experience that have taken her around the world to assist with delicate preservation missions.
“WVU offers access to analytical laboratories dedicated to Scanning Electron Microscopy combined with Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy and Fourier Infrared Transform spectroscopy which enables students to get acquainted with analytical techniques applied to materials characterization,” Szczepanowska said. “Digital microscopy using a MiScope Art Gallery portable microscope is routinely used during classes as a main tool for surface characterization.”
Students use the analytical techniques on campus, hands on, and via virtual visits. Access to WVU’s diverse art collection at the Art Museum of WVU, located next door to the School of Art and Design, enables students to research original art works. Reciprocally, the students’ research findings enhance the understanding and value of the collection.
Student Kate Caplinger’s work was published in the peer-reviewed Mountaineer Undergraduate Research Review for her analytical examination. The article illustrates research using analytical tools to characterize the materials of the mural painting (1942) representing the unity of art and science at WVU’s White Hall, executed by Robert Lepper, who was a teacher of Andy Warhol.
Student Ken Walker used material analysis to establish the provenance of a wooden Dogon granary latch. It represents a highly sought after example of Dogon Culture from Mali, Western Africa. In her research, student Breellen Fleming, through her analysis of paper fibers and the artistic technique of sumi-e cross-referenced with art historical research of the image and signature, confirmed the attribution of an artwork to the 19th century Japanese ink wash painter, Okamoto Toyohiko. Establishing authorship and a provenance of objects and artworks confirms the value of the artwork and collection as a whole.
“Students have the opportunity to visit and see in person the collection and explore the materials that were used in the creation of objects and artworks,” Szczepanowska said. “With our students participating in active research, the collection becomes a ‘living' entity, full of opportunity for discovery.”
When discoveries are made within the program, it helps students understand how their research becomes a meaningful contribution to the art community.