In the 1930s, the Museum was among the first in the world to introduce a modest in-house scientific research facility. Today, the Scientific Research Laboratory employs some of the same highly sensitive instruments often used in forensic science to study microscopic samples taken from works of art. The research scientists play a pivotal role in conservation and curatorial research, using chemistry, biology, engineering, physics, geology and other disciplines to provide not only detailed information about materials and techniques found in artworks, but also diagnostic information for conservators developing treatment and preservation strategies.
The lab is responsible for in-depth scientific research on works from the Museum’s collections, as well as any scientific testing of objects from these holdings conducted at other institutions or outside analytical facilities. Staff members also routinely provide analytical services to other institutions, conducting collaborative projects with curators and conservators from around the world.
Additionally, this division is tasked with coordinating the institution-wide effort in preventive conservation, to slow the rate of deterioration by limiting exposure to pollutants, light and humidity. The lab monitors all environmental parameters throughout the Museum, including evaluation of construction materials used in gallery and storage areas.
Research on artifacts addresses a wide variety of questions, including authentication, state of preservation, the nature of previous restorations, characterization of materials, and broad technical studies to further understanding of individual works of art. The lab is equipped to prepare many types of samples, including cross sections and thin sections from a wide range of material types.
In-house analytical capabilities include: optical microscopy (reflected light, polarizing light, and epifluorescence); Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy; ultraviolet/visible absorption and reflectance spectrophotometry; air-path energy-dispersive x-ray fluorescence; x-ray diffraction spectrometry; scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive and wavelength-dispersive x-ray spectrometers; gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and pyrolysis gas chromatography/mass spectrometry; and analytical and capillary high performance liquid chromatography.
As an educational outreach service, the lab manages Conservation and Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO), a free web-based resource. CAMEO contains chemical, physical, visual and analytical information on historic and contemporary materials used in the conservation, preservation and production or artistic, architectural and archaeological materials. The database is continually growing and currently includes records on over 10,000 materials and nearly 6,000 images illustrating individual materials used in works of art as well as their characterization by microscopy and other analytical techniques.