Conservation Science for Non-Scientists: The Secret Lives of Decorative Objects

This course will explore the fundamental structures and properties of the materials used to construct the decorative environment. The objects that make up this environment are engineered to have surface optical properties and textures that produce a range of effects that include rich colors, gloss, iridescence, and opacity. As these objects age, these surfaces are vulnerable to interaction with agents of deterioration from the environment such as water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide pollution and even the salts from our hands. To understand the original intention of a decorative environment, it is necessary then to understand how its component objects have changed over time. This can only be accomplished through an understanding of the materials from which the objects were originally constructed. This course will encompass everything from ephemeral faux furniture finishes to prized objects of vertu and works of industrial design. From the first engineered ceramic, faience, created in predynastic Egypt to the delicately lustered surfaces of Italian Renaissance majolica, there is fascinating chemistry that goes into the creation of all of the decorative arts. At the end of this course students will be able to walk into a Victorian parlor, an Empire dining room, a mid-century modern living room, or an art nouveau entrance hall and understand the compositions and construction of the metallic alloys, the glasses and ceramics, the furniture finishes, the decorative stonework, and the natural and synthetic resins that define their environment. 3 credits.