Yale Receives Mellon Challenge Grant for New Conservation Center on West Campus

Yale’s comprehensive Conservation Center has been awarded an endowment challenge grant of $1.5 million from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create and endow the position of Director of Scientific Research, a key component of Yale’s plan to establish the University’s West Campus as a major hub of research, education and scientific innovation in the field of cultural heritage preservation. The grant also includes $225,000 in spendable funds that will enable the University to hire an outstanding candidate while matching funds are raised.

The Director will be charged with designing and implementing a long-term scientifically based conservation and preservation strategy for the West Campus center, which will not only focus on the University’s own rich and diverse cultural treasury but will also serve as a research laboratory for heritage professionals generally and a central training ground for stewards of valued artwork and precious objects the world over.

The Yale Center for Conservation is housed in a vast 426,000-square-foot building that was formerly part of a Bayer Pharmaceutical Corporation complex.  Fitted with sophisticated laboratories, the building is being adapted for the particular analytical and research needs of scientists working with cultural heritage materials. While the collaborative, cross-disciplinary effort will focus on Yale’s material holdings—from rare books and art to musical instruments and ethnographic holdings—the West Campus facility is poised to become a hub of research and teaching at the graduate and undergraduate level and a resource for postdoctoral fellowships and professional training opportunities.

Yale University Art Gallery Chief Conservator Ian McClure and Object Conservator Carol Snow now divide their time between Central Campus and West Campus. Snow is actively engaged in developing treatment strategies for several projects including a sixth-century mosaic from Jordan; a wall painting from the Dura-Europos excavation site in Syria with one of the earliest known depictions of Christ; and a period room from an 18th-century home in Gilead, Connecticut which has been in storage for 80 years.

“This is where art and science intersect,” says Barbara A. Shailor, who as Deputy Provost for the Arts coordinated the initiative to make a “one-stop” research facility to serve conservators at Yale’s three museums and University Library. “Yale University is deeply committed both to preserving its own cultural heritage collections and to being a leader in evolving scientific approaches to conservation issues,” Shailor added.

Whether an as yet unidentified masterpiece from the Yale Art Gallery, a cuneiform tablet from the Library’s Babylonian collections, or a 200-million-year-old fossil from the Peabody, the disparate elements of Yale’s vast repository of art and objects inevitably share age-related conditions of deterioration and decay. Manuscripts and drawings, for example, may be subject to acidic corrosion from the ink with which they were written and wooden artifacts or textile samples may be threatened by infestations of microscopic pests or mold. Scientists and conservators must not only protect objects from these common threats, they must also address problems peculiar to each item in their care. These might include previous treatments, which may have inflicted as much harm as good, or damage from a single event like a fire or flood. The component elements used in an object’s fabrication—paint pigments, for example—have to be analyzed and understood at the deepest level, before a treatment plan for its preservation can be developed.

Dating of each object to determine its provenance, uncovering an original work that may be buried under layers of dirt or superimposed secondary art, or restoration attempts are tasks that increasingly require advanced non-damaging technology and sophisticated tools that are only found in a modern laboratory setting.

The new Director of Scientific Research at the Conservation Center will adapt and incorporate existing facilities into the long-term master plan and will work with members of the scientific and conservation communities at Yale to add new resources in imaging, informatics and chemistry as they are needed.

While facilitating Yale’s comprehensive preservation effort is a core function of the West Campus, the building has already begun operating as a multi-purpose Arts Center: an ambitious project digitizing three-dimensional objects from the University’s diverse holdings is well underway and the Peabody Museum has moved a sizable portion of its collections into 45,000 square feet of accessible storage space. A barely tapped resource, the massive manufacturing building will eventually provide accessible, environmentally sensitive storage for much of Yale’s material collections not destined for public display—which represent the overwhelming majority of its material possessions.