In Conversation

Paul Messier: Using science to advance the arts and humanities

Messier, the new chair of Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, discusses his new role, old photographs, ultra-violet lasers, and more.
Paul Messier

Paul Messier (Image credit: Dan Renzetti/Andrew Hurley)

As the new chair of Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH), Paul Messier oversees research at the intersection of science and the humanities.

Established at Yale’s West Campus in 2013, the IPCH aims to preserve and interpret material culture — the art and objects that help define societies — through scientific analysis. A renowned photography conservator, Messier also directs the IPCH’s Lens Media Lab, a leading center for research on 20th-century photography.

Messier, who was appointed IPCH chair on Jan. 31, recently spoke with YaleNews about his new role, old photographs, ultra-violet lasers, “The Pencil of Nature” — and the thrumming hive that is Yale’s West Campus.

Interview condensed and edited.

What unique value does the IPCH provide Yale?

The IPCH is a platform for creativity and innovation in the cultural heritage space. Our unique value is in connecting science to the arts and the humanities. In doing so, we apply techniques and concepts from physics, chemistry, and statistics and data science to humanistic questions. Yale’s collections provide the datasets that drive our science. Humanities scholars are our core constituency.

If we’re doing it right, then we create a virtuous cycle in which the information we uncover finds its way into humanities scholarship, which in turn raises new questions for us to answer through science. It’s our responsibility to make that science accessible to scholars of art history, history, languages, etc. We aim to share our findings and techniques beyond Yale to build a broad network of collection-scale analysis.

How does the IPCH collaborate with Yale’s museums?

We want to be the connective tissue for Yale’s collections. Our remit is to work across the university’s collections — not to coordinate them at an administrative level, but to promote their use as datasets for scientific analysis.

There are tangible manifestations of this relationship. Each of Yale’s museums has a place in the IPCH’s conservation and imaging labs. Those are spaces that we manage and that we ensure reflect contemporary practice in terms of tools and techniques, but they’re truly spaces where the museums’ conservators do the baseline work of documenting and conserving Yale’s collections. Then there are the IPCH’s four research labs, which have the capacity to deeply analyze individual objects with cutting edge tools and conduct collection-wide studies in collaboration with our partners at the museums.

What’s an example of an ongoing project that illustrates the IPCH’s role of drawing information from the collections through science?

We’re doing a project on “The Pencil of Nature,” which was the first photographically illustrated commercial publication. It was created by William Henry Fox Talbot, a pioneer of photography, and issued in six fascicles, or volumes, between 1844 and 1846. It’s the Big Bang of photography — the initial point at which photographs are included in books for broad dissemination. The Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) has several fascicles. Since photography’s beginning, we have faced questions about the medium’s permanence. Photographs fade and change as they age. This is the case with the photographs in “The Pencil of Nature.”

We’re working with Chitra Ramalingam, associate curator of photography at the YCBA. She understands the scientific aspect of the work, but she cares deeply about humanistic questions concerning networks of production and the exchange of raw materials. We can illuminate those questions through our analysis.

What sorts of analyses are you performing on “The Pencil of Nature”?

A part of the project borrows methods from data science. For example, we’ve scraped the web for images from existing fascicles of “The Pencil of Nature” to learn whether there is something specific to it that drove the deterioration of the photographs versus other prints by Talbot. It’s been thought that there was something about the way the book was constructed that caused its photographs to deteriorate more quickly. We compiled more than 30,000 images and, through an algorithm we developed, determined that, yes, there is a “Pencil of Nature” effect. We found that the effect is more pronounced on certain photographs within the work than others. In fact, certain photographs appear to be immune, and we ask: Why is that?

Working off of that broad analysis, we can go back and analyze the individual prints in the YCBA’s fascicles to figure out how they were constructed differently to make them either more or less stable over time.

Are there new initiatives at the IPCH that you’re especially excited about?

We are developing an external-facing agenda for the IPCH under the leadership of Alison Gilchrest, the new director of applied research and outreach. The IPCH will continue to catalyze the development of new techniques and knowledge based on Yale’s extraordinary collections.  But then, perhaps more urgently, we can work with preservation partners in global regions that are chronically underserved for research capacity to help meet a broader need.

What’s an example of a technique being developed at the IPCH that can be shared widely?

We have a project, directed by Anikó Bezur, to develop a portable tool to identify materials based on elemental makeup, including trace elements and isotopes. This information is key for understanding the geological sources of materials.

The breakthrough is in decoupling sampling from analysis. Moving the sampling technique out of the lab and into smaller, sometimes under-resourced, collections has the potential to make one of the most sophisticated tools in our kit broadly accessible.

The technique works like this: An ultra-violet laser samples an object, such as a pottery shard, producing a crater measuring slightly more than the diameter of a human hair. Filters capture sampled particles, which field researchers gather in vials and send to the lab. The lab performs the identification using costly instruments that are hard to run and maintain, and definitely not portable. The potential for this work is exciting, especially as it relates to the applied research and outreach agenda and for opening a path toward understanding networks of production and origins.

How does being headquartered at West Campus benefit the IPCH?

The IPCH benefits tremendously from our home at West Campus. We are fortunate to be neighbors with state-of-the-art collection management facilities, such as the Yale University Art Gallery’s Wurtele Study Center, which houses nearly 37,000 three-dimensional art objects, and the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s new 19,000-square-foot collection study facility.

Museum storage used to be just that: storage — dead and inaccessible. It’s been completely reinvented over the past decade. The collection management facilities at West Campus reflect this change. They give scholars access to collection material not on public display. They’re alive and animated. They are our laboratory for understanding and experiencing artwork and artifacts. 

Ultimately, the whole of the West Campus has been designed to support and promote interdisciplinary science, so IPCH is in good company here.

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