Materiality in Art: Weinberg and McCormick Students Collaborate to Uncover the Material Science of Art at the Block Museum

“Materiality of Art and Archaeology: An Introduction to Archaeological Science and Technical Art History ” offered in Spring 2016 at Northwestern University brought together an interdisciplinary group of students in both Art History and Materials Science to work with and assess objects in the Block Museum collection.  Taught by Dr. Marc Walton, the course addressed the role of scientific examination in investigating the production and use of art objects. Focusing on material studies of ceramic, stone, metal, glass, and pigments as well as their binding media, students learned about the material make-up of art objects by employing in-depth visual analysis alongside elemental and chemical composition studies.  Throughout the quarter, students converged in the Block Museum’s Eloise W. Martin Study Center to conduct analysis of their assigned objects.

The course concluded with final projects from collaborative teams, each of which included one Art Historian and a few Material Scientists.  The project presented the opportunity for students to delve into the research on single object in the Block Museum Collection and fostered unique collaboration between disciplines. Art Historians focused on the historical context and significance of the objects while the Material Scientist worked in the lab on elemental and chemical composition studies. Together, the two groups compared their findings to make specific, evidence based claims about their chosen object. Participant Mai Morsch, an Art Historian, concluded that “It was wonderful to work independently and under a strict deadline with a group of my Material Science peers because it encouraged us to learn from each other and produce research that is meaningful to both of our fields. As a class, we also felt a strong sense of camaraderie because we felt that our work could serve a resource for the Block Museum for years to come.”

Photos by: Sean Su @[203867963313063:0]

In one fascinating presentation Nicholas Giancola, Justin Lim, Pascual O’Doherty, and Jennifer Rote analyzed a cast in the Block Museum collection known by museum curators to be modeled after Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s Venice Woman IX (c.1980). While the Block Museum curators knew the sculpture to be in the style of Giacometti, rather than by the master directly, the students pursued the scientific path that would be used in the field to investigate what an object reveals about the hands or methods that made it.


Their analysis began by visually comparing the Block Museum sculpture with an analogous sculpture at the Tate Museum, studying structural details, inscriptions, and dimensions. They found structural irregularities with the inscription (signature and foundry mark), “the seam,” the ribbing on the base, and auxiliary marble pedestal. Further, they found that the Block Museum sculpture is smaller than the Tate’s, which proved that it was possibly fabricated by using one of Giacometti’s original casts as a template

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Through chemical and elemental composition studies the students employed X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF), an analytical technique used to determine the elements present in a sample. The students used this technique to compare the elements present in the Block Museum’s sculpture with elements characteristic to the Susse Foundry where Giacometti is known to have worked.  They found that the XRF percentage composition revealed low zinc levels in the core, suggesting inconsistency with the typical Susse Foundry alloy.

The students also used Energy-Dispersive X-Ray Emissive Spectroscopy (EDS), and Raman Spectroscopy, however, these tests yielded inconclusive results. The EDS did suggest that the patina percentage composition is lower in zinc than the core of the sculpture, pointing to further discrepancy from the artist’s foundry. The valuable data sets collected by this presentation group and others have been added to the curatorial and preservation records of the objects in the Block Collection.

The Block Museum was thrilled to host students for an inside-look (on the molecular level) into collection objects, and to offer serve as a site in which students of Art History and Materials Science could convene and build knowledge together.

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Professor Marc Walton currently holds the position of Research Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University. He was trained in Chemistry and Art History at Clark University. He earned a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in archaeological science following an MA in art history, as well as a diploma in the conservation of works of art, from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. After earning his Ph.D., Marc worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for two years prior to joining the Getty Conservation Institute in 2005, where he was an associate scientist responsible for the scientific study of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum. In addition, he established and ran the analytical laboratory at the Getty Villa site, and served as co-PI on a National Science Foundation Cultural Heritage Science grant on ancient Athenian pottery.  His research has focused primarily on trade and manufacture of ancient objects.

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