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NSF Equipment Grant Allows W&L Faculty to Look at Things in a New Light

Students and faculty will soon be looking at Washington and Lee University’s significant collection of art, ceramics and historical artifacts in a new scientific light, courtesy of a National Science Foundation grant for instrumentation.

The new equipment, purchased through the $119,678 grant, enables non-destructive analysis and includes a portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer, digital IR camera with an InGaAs detector and boom-mounted research-quality stereomicroscope. Although W&L currently has scientific instrumentation to analyze these objects, it has required taking small samples, or “destructive analysis.”

“We have a tremendous educational opportunity with the cultural materials we have on campus,” said Erich Uffelman, chemistry professor, international expert on the educational use of scientific analysis of art and leader of the project.
Modern museum research involves a tight collaboration between teams of people, and in this case key players include Ron Fuchs, curator of the Reeves Collection, Peter Grover, director of university collections and Patricia Hobbs, associate director of university collections. They will help identify important research points within the objects themselves and will frequently oversee student researchers.

W&L’s art collection includes Charles Willson Peale’s portraits of George Washington and Lafayette, the Gilbert Stuart “Athenaeum Portrait” of George Washington and the controversial “Stuart” W&L copy of the George Washington “Lansdowne Portrait,” the original of which is in the National Portrait Gallery.

By using the new technology, faculty and students can study these paintings to determine, for example, whether underdrawings – preliminary sketches on the canvas that map out what the artist planned to paint – are present in the “Lansdowne Portrait.” This could have significant attribution ramifications since previous researchers have shown that many American painters of Stuart’s era did not use underdrawings. “Using infrared wavelengths, you can actually see through the paint layers and pick up the preliminary sketch,” said Uffelman. “That can be really interesting for analyzing artistic technique, intentions and style.”

W&L also has most of the works of minor turn-of-the-century master Louise Herreshoff, and the researchers plan to conduct a systematic assessment of her palette and technique.

W&L holds the world’s fourth best collection of Chinese export porcelain and Uffelman cited one straightforward application using the new equipment that would show some pigment materials that are characteristic of different time periods. “For instance, if you have a piece of Meissen porcelain that you suspect is not genuine, it’s possible that elements in its glazing will not be correct,” he said.

In addition, students and faculty have excavated thousands of archeological artifacts at W&L over the past four decades, but few of them have been chemically analyzed with modern analytical instrumentation. Alison Bell, assistant professor of archaeology, will be in charge of examining elements of that collection using the new equipment. One application would be to determine whether elemental profiles of the artifacts are different, which would allow researchers to infer that some households bought their ceramics all at once in matched sets, while others pieced bits together from different factories as finances and other circumstances allowed.

Bell also plans to use the new equipment at excavations of a mining community in Virginia as well as at her collaboration on a dig at Monticello, where she and students have been excavating the site of the plantation overseer’s house.

“This is very much a collaborative venture,” said Uffelman. “Although the instrumentation is non-destructive, one of the major ways that art and archeological objects get damaged is by transport and handling. So we need people with conservation experience just to get the object to the instrumentation or vice versa, without damaging it.”

“We’re delighted and thrilled,” said Grover. “We always preach the aesthetics of art but now we get to look at the scientific and technical sides as well, giving students access to world class works of art, ceramics and artifacts.”

The ultimate goal will be to develop nationally significant research that will be published with students in peer-reviewed journals and presented at professional meetings.