Solving museum mysteries
Author: Stephanie Argy
Posted: May 27, 2018

Chemistry professor Tami Lasseter Clare helps save works of art.

As Tami Lasseter Clare was finishing her Ph.D. in chemistry and looking for work, she had a sudden, startling realization: she wanted more from her life than a purely scientific career could offer. To find a livelihood that would make her happy, she analyzed the skills she’d acquired during her education alongside her passions, and she found the perfect combination in the field of art conservation.

Now an associate professor of chemistry at Portland State, as well as director of the University’s Regional Laboratory for the Science of Cultural Heritage Conservation, Clare combines science and art, using her knowledge of chemistry to solve mysteries about artworks in the museums of the Pacific Northwest.

One of her first mysteries came soon after she started at PSU in 2009. The Portland Art Museum had a second-century Han Chinese Dynasty Money Tree that was shedding some of its delicate metal leaves. The Money Tree is a bronze sculpture over four-feet high that was placed in a tomb to bring good luck to the dead. Clare analyzed the chemical composition of the debris that had accumulated on the tree’s surface to determine what approach to take with its conservation. Based on her research, the museum decided to gently remove the encrustation, leaving the underlying design more clearly visible than ever before.

It is this kind of work that led to a recent $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has Clare leading a new Pacific Northwestern Consortium for the Science of Cultural Heritage Conservation at PSU. She will work with five partners: Seattle Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, University of Washington Libraries, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon and Alaska State Museum.

The initial focus of the consortium will be on Native American and Asian art, areas that are particularly strong in the collections of the museums. The members will work together to choose which works will be selected for study. Clare says that doing so will help magnify the impact of the grant.

“Any results can be shared,” she says.

TWO TYPES of roles exist in art conservation: conservators and conservation scientists such as Clare. Samantha Springer, the conservator of the Portland Art Museum, says it’s like the relationship between a doctor and a specialist. Doctors treat patients and observe symptoms, but they may need a specialist’s assistance to find the cause of a particular symptom. Conservators can look at an artwork and find where there’s damage, but they may have to call in a conservation scientist to analyze that damage with more sophisticated tools. Conservators have a background in studio art, art history and science, while conservation scientists have doctorates in chemistry or other physical sciences.

Springer had to call on Clare when she discovered salts developing in glazed Islamic tiles on display at the museum. In her own lab, she could do spot tests, but she could only characterize the salts to a certain extent. “I knew that some were coming from their previous environment, but I wondered if any were coming from the cases the tiles were being exhibited in.”

When Clare followed up with a deeper analysis, she confirmed Springer’s suspicions. Some of the salts were acetates, formed by acetic acid emitted by the exhibition cases.

“It indicated to me that we couldn’t show in this type of environment anymore,” says Springer.

CLARE, the only conservation scientist west of Chicago and north of Los Angeles, was also involved in the conservation of the Portland Art Museum’s painting “Il Femminiello” by Giuseppe Bonito. Femminielli were cross-dressing men in the Italian city of Naples, and this painting, done between 1740 and 1760, was the only known representation of a femminiello until photographs were taken of them in the late 19th century. The painting had a large loss of paint in its lower quarter, and Clare needed to identify the original pigments, especially the blues.

“Blues are very subjective,” says Clare. “The hue will appear to shift depending on the light, so they’re very hard to match.”

By analyzing the chemical elements in the pigments, she could identify the original colorants in the paints, so they could be matched during the restoration process.

In the United States there are only four universities that offer a graduate degree in art conservation, and none that offer a degree in conservation science. Clare explains that the idea of a conservation science degree is controversial, because some believe that students should first earn a Ph.D. in chemistry physical science, then specialize in art conservation in their post-doctorate work, as she did. Clare did her post-doc at the Philadelphia Art Museum, one of the most robust institutions for art conservation in the country. Her three doctoral students are learning about conservation science through their work in her lab, as they keep their options open by getting a broader education in chemistry.

Nevertheless, Clare says that PSU has been strongly supportive of conservation science, which means that her students get the balance between science and art that she has sought in her own career.

“Portland State provides a very unique educational experience,” she says. “There just aren’t opportunities like what students have here, that combine lab and cultural work. I hope people can explore these crossovers and break out of the boxes people draw around categories.”

Stephanie Argy is a graduate assistant in the Office of University Communications.

Conservation of Asian and Native American art at the Portland Art Museum and four other West Coast museums is the focus of a new consortium headed by professor Tami Lasseter Clare. Photos by NashCO Photography and courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

Professor Tami Lasseter Clare stands in front of the Tlinglist artist House Panels at the Portland Art Museum.