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Photo by Filip Wolak.
Photo by Filip Wolak.
Photo by Filip Wolak.
Photo by Filip Wolak.

Think back to your high school science courses. What do you remember? Some experiments stand out: dissection in biology can be distinctively gross; incinerating salt compounds to produce a rainbow of flames in chemistry is always a hit. My least favorite memory is from Earth Science freshman year. To simulate plate-tectonics, we slid two graham crackers (the plates in Earth’s crust) towards each other over a gooey bed of chocolate pudding (Earth’s molten mantle). It ruined both snacks for me for two decades.

While there are many dedicated science teachers inspiring students every day, many of us do not cultivate a curiosity for science in high school, or ever. Those “memorable” experiments often fail in one key way: they do not relate to what we enjoy or extend beyond the bounds of the discipline. This phenomenon is not unique to science courses. Generally, secondary education is still setting a foundation for students, and the amount of interdisciplinary teaching is limited, depending on time and even class size.

Art Detectives is a new summer program for teens that connects their passion for the arts with scientific investigation. Presented by Bard Graduate Center and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, this collaboration used the Lab for Teen Thinkers framework to expand Find the Forgery, a two-week Guggenheim program in conservation science initiated in 2017. The result was a four-week curriculum offered in July 2021, wherein teens met in person and remotely for an interdisciplinary course in art conservation and cultural heritage science. The curriculum, centered on the conservation of physical and digitally-born art, addressed two main questions: What can scientific analysis tell us about a work of art? And why is preserving objects part of our cultural heritage?

Like the Lab for Teen Thinkers, the primary purpose of Art Detectives is to open future educational and career opportunities in the arts and humanities to high school students of historically underrepresented backgrounds. The hope is that introducing teens to career pathways in the humanities might impact future choices of a major or an academic institution. More than 130 New York City rising juniors and seniors applied to Art Detectives, and more than 50% of the 13 who attended are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Students in this first cohort represented both public and private high schools and all five boroughs. Those who completed the program received a stipend so that they would not have to choose between working a summer job or attending the course four days a week. After the program, students became eligible to apply for paid fall research internships at Bard Graduate Center.

Art Detectives is unique because immersive, hands-on, interdisciplinary experiences are not typically available to students until college, or even graduate school. To Jennifer Mass, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Cultural Heritage Science at BGC and Art Detectives instructor, this was a key goal. “I felt that it was a really important thing to share with the teens that in the past century or so, there’s been this artificial boundary between the arts and sciences … So for example, the students would understand that some of the most important questions that we address in our scientific research come from art historians or historians or archaeologists; that we are very much involved with our adjacent fields in the humanities.”

The interdisciplinary curriculum attracted students Anya Chu and Ava Zhang, both students at Brooklyn Technical High School. When deciding to enroll, Chu, a self-described “humanities person,” wanted to push herself to strengthen her awareness of STEM fields. “I thought it’d be a really cool way to combine art, which is something I love, with science, which is something I’m trying to explore.” Upon seeing the program advertisement, Zhang recalled a fourth-grade experience at the Guggenheim called Learning through Art. She remembered creating a tree to represent a book she was reading at the time, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and thought this would be another unique learning opportunity. Zhang sees interdisciplinary studies as a possible way to combine her varied interests in the humanities, writing, law, biochemistry, and biophysics, to name a few. She also wanted to learn more about art. She has developed an appreciation for art thanks to school-facilitated trips, but otherwise, she has not had many opportunities to visit museums.

Neither student knew exactly what art conservators did. Most museum-goers don’t either, as many restorations can seamlessly make an object appear “whole.” Chu admitted that despite growing up in a family that embraced art—her grandmother was an art historian—she knew little about art conservation. “Before I started the program, my family said, ‘Oh so you’re just going to be in a basement with a Q-tip in front of a painting.’ And because I had no expectations, I thought, ‘Maybe. I have no idea!’”

Fortunately, students were not sitting in basements with cotton swabs; rather they could meet in the Guggenheim conservation lab and access state-of-the-art analytical equipment. Under the guidance of scientists and conservators, students utilized non-invasive imaging techniques to glean hidden information in a work. For example, X-ray fluorescence showed heavier elements like lead suspended in the paint. Infrared imaging revealed sketches beneath a painting, offering insight into an artist’s process. Students used infrared imaging on works from the Guggenheim’s Thannhauser Collection with Jeffrey Warda, the museum’s Senior Conservator, Paper and Photographs, and Erich Uffelman, Bentley Professor of Chemistry at Washington and Lee University. Students also employed minimally invasive techniques for chemical analysis of an artwork, such as FTIR, a form of infrared spectroscopy. After inconspicuously removing a speck of paint (as Jennifer Mass would say, “the size of a period at the end of a 12-point font typed sentence”), FTIR can identify each compound present in the sample. The chemical composition can indicate why materials degrade so that these reactions to the environment can be slowed or arrested.

Scientific analysis of art can provide details that support or refute historical documentation of an artists’ materials. One of the culminating projects of the program was for students to conduct a close examination of a painting and present their findings. Students knew they were not analyzing actual masterpieces by either Jackson Pollack or Pablo Picasso, but they needed to present the evidence for how they knew. Along the way, a series of clues would build a tentative narrative regarding the life of the work: how and when it was created, when changes occurred, and possibly whether the work was intended to be a forgery or just an artist copying a masterwork as a study.

While examining her painting, Zhang appreciated the guidance from instructors, who both challenged her assumptions and encouraged further exploration. For Zhang, a difficult task was adjusting her narrative as new evidence unfolded. Often a newly uncovered detail would conflict with the rest of the evidence, but she could not omit it. “I feel like the more challenging thing for me was being okay with not having an answer … I think it got easier the more we did it and the more discussions we had.”

The typical high school curriculum provides a foundation of facts, so actually engaging in the investigative process during Art Detectives stands out. Given our national misunderstanding of the scientific process and reluctance to adapt to new information— both have been disastrously apparent over the past two years—it is essential for twenty-first-century life that students practice letting go of their assumptions in light of new evidence, the way this Art Detectives project requires.

In addition to considering what objects can tell us about our past, students considered how to preserve objects for future generations. Time-based and digitally-born media present a unique set of challenges to the conservator: the ever more rapid race against obsolescence. Digital works can become obsolete within just a few years, and migrating to a different programming language or device could alter the aesthetics of a work and misrepresent the artist’s intent. Students researched LOT-EK’s Mixer (2000), a piece about technology’s impact on society that was created 20 years ago using state-of-the-art digital approaches that are now obsolete. As a final curatorial project, students were tasked to imagine how they would reinstall Mixer now or in the future. Students had the opportunity to meet with LOT-EK designer Giuseppe Lignano to ask questions about his intent. They presented a variety of options; some chose to reinstall the work as it was, representing the time of the early 2000s; others chose to update the technology, maintaining the work’s emphasis on social interaction.

While Art Detectives can spark future careers, it can also ignite lifelong interest in the arts and humanities. Lena Stringari is the Deputy Director and Andrew W. Mellon Chief Conservator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and originator of the Guggenheim program, Find the Forgery. For Stringari, introducing young people to a new way of looking at art is critical. “The primary goal of Art Detectives is to explore how cultural heritage reflects our humanity, how and why we preserve it, and the underlying assumptions about identity and authenticity. To understand both tangible and intangible culture, one must look closely, pose the right questions, conduct research and analysis. In this way, we can make informed interpretations and tell stories about the world around us.”

For Chu and Zhang, Art Detectives deepened their relationships to museums and art—and scientific investigation guided this change in perspective. Anya Chu recognized the “multiple entryways into museums,” referring to the variety of expertise required to run a modern museum. She is also interested in learning more about art conservation. Ava Zhang reflected that her engagement with art changed from “reactive” to “proactive.” Before she had an appreciation of art for how it looked: now she can “ask questions” of the work and think more deeply about the life it had before being put on display. The comments of these two students reflect the significance of Art Detectives: we have to extend meaningful opportunities to young people if we hope for them to form a lasting relationship with or pursue a career in the arts and humanities.

Hannah J. Rolfes is a writer with interests spanning the arts and sciences. She has a background in dance and arts education.