When Francesca Casadio was appointed as the first full-time conservation scientist at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003, she had an ambitious vision: advance scientific preservation techniques to support the museum’s encyclopedic collection. But more than that, she wanted to build a robust, enduring institutional partnership that promoted research at the crossroads of art and science.
Casadio identified Northwestern as a natural ally based on the University’s reputation for vibrant cross-disciplinary research, state-of-the-art instrumentation, and expert faculty across scientific fields.
In 2004, the two institutions began a collaboration backed by the A. W. Mellon Foundation. Over the next eight years, the partnership produced numerous discoveries that offered insight into the rich biographies of cultural artifacts and refined noninvasive exploratory techniques used for sampling
and replication in conservation science. But Casadio and Kathy Faber, (formerly materials science and engineering, now at Caltech), believed more could be achieved with additional investment.
In 2012, the University secured a six-year, $2.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to invest and expand the institutional partnership by launching the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS). This crucial support helped enable Northwestern to recruit Marc Walton, a senior scientist from the J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities collection, to catalyze collaborative efforts between McCormick School of Engineering scientists and Art Institute conservators.
“We have been very busy the past four years,” says Casadio, co-director of the initiative. “NU-ACCESS has produced more than 40 publications, 15 presentations, numerous symposia convening experts across the field, as well as several student-focused efforts, including a recent tour of the museum’s conservation efforts for a group of Chicago sixth-graders to showcase the interconnectedness of art and science.”
Respected by top academic institutions across the country, NU-ACCESS has become a leading model for collaborative scientific research in the arts and a resource for art historians, archaeologists, conservation scientists, conservators, and curators for object-based research.
Casadio attributes the collaboration’s unique success to Northwestern’s institutional support, the enthusiasm of its scientists, and availability of advanced instrumentation — including use of beamlines at Argonne National Laboratory, an arrangement made possible thanks to an existing Argonne-Northwestern relationship.
“At NU-ACCESS, interdisciplinarity is in our DNA,” says Casadio. “When art and science converge, the interplay of the object and subject comes alive to reveal important historical questions of methodology, materials, and meaning. Although different lines of inquiry emerge from the humanities and hard sciences, we also must search for a common language for effective collaboration.”
To encourage that kind of communication, NU-ACCESS hosted a December workshop for McCormick students and students from the Weinberg College of the Arts and Sciences with the aim of exploring questions that emerge from different disciplines about a given object.
In 2017, Casadio and codirector Monica Olvera de la Cruz, the Lawyer Taylor Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, will partner with Northwestern’s Buffett Institute for Global Studies to host a domain dinner to encourage further cross-disciplinary cultural heritage research by matching experts in the humanities with peers in the hard sciences.