An introduction to the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) by Dr Francesca Casadio:
Professor Katherine T Faber of Northwestern University and
Dr Francesca Casadio of the Art Institute of Chicago are the co-directors of NU-ACCESS
Many major Art Museums in the world have been equipped with state-of the art scientific instrumentation since the beginning of the 20th century (unless you are the Rathgen Research Laboratory of the Berlin State Museums, which led the pack being founded in 1888). Increasingly, portable instruments such as x-ray fluorescence spectrometers, Raman spectrometers, diffractometers and hyperspectral imaging devices are not only the tools of space exploration, but are brought to museum collections and sites for materials-based archaeology (or archaeometry).
So, what happens if you are one of those cultural institutions or archaeological sites, or historical buildings with a really compelling materials-question and you don’t have your own in-house scientist, clad in a white lab-coat? In Europe, you call up Charisma, the Cultural Heritage Advanced Research Infrastructures: Synergy for a Multidisciplinary Approach to Conservation/ Restoration, and in no time a nimble van, jam-packed with the latest and greatest in portable equipment, will come at your doorsteps to solve the problem at hand (it is not quite like that, but close).
In the US, until recently your only option was to rely on the kindness of a scientist at a cultural institution, or a chemistry professor in academia, a physicist at a large scale facility or, if you had a budget, one of a handful of conservation scientists in private practice. Since January 2013 though, you can call up a scientist at NU-ACCESS, and it’s their job to listen and steer you towards a successful project proposal, that, if approved, will be carried out competently at no cost to your institution.
The Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) is a collaborative endeavour in conservation science that pursues
objects-based and objects-inspired scientific research to advance the role of science within art history, curatorial scholarship, archaeology, and conservation. The goals of the collaborative program are to enrich the breadth, scope, and reach of scientific studies in the arts and in the wider field of conservation in the United States and abroad, by leveraging resources at the Art Institute and materials-related departments at Northwestern University.
The conservation science partnership, funded over six years with a generous gift of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will offer its scientific tools and expertise to users, facilitating interdisciplinary research partnerships in art studies and conservation on a national scale. Academic researchers and scholars in training will meet and engage in mutual learning with scientists, conservators and curators.
This landmark initiative represents a tectonic shift from the isolated museum scientist to a collaborative hub that will serve as incubator of new ideas.
While the scientists won’t come to you with a private jet full of scientific equipment (after all, this is America, and the Charisma van would not be practical to cross its vast expanse), curators, conservators, archaeologists, librarians and others interested in investigating the materials aspect of our shared cultural heritage, develop innovative techniques to conduct such investigations and preserve artifacts, sites, buildings and documents for future generations should consult the center’s website to check on current activities and to submit a research proposal."