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Drawing on ethnographic and archival research in the US and Italy, my current book project, Re-enchanting the Past: Technoscience and the Conservation of Art and Heritage, examines the latest technoscientific projects for the restoration of art and cultural heritage. I am interested in how physicists, chemists, and biologists can bring their varied perspectives on nature to bear on what the “original” or “authentic” should look like. At stake are the tools and values that can verify the authenticity of an aesthetic and historical artifact and settle the question of who may intervene in its care.
Scientists today use their laboratory expertise to transform objects that have canonically been the domain of history and aesthetics into objects of technoscience. I show how they contribute to enduring ethical debates within art history and heritage preservation, having to do with interpreting an artist’s intent and an object’s historicity or pristineness.
My case studies include:
- The use of digital light projection to restore faded paintings by Mark Rothko at the Harvard Art Museums;
- The development of nanotechnology by physical chemists in Florence, Italy to restore modern and contemporary art;
- And, the application of trained bacteria to clean stone monuments in Milan.
- My last case study in the Vatican Museums analyzes my fieldwork in the Vatican’s Ethnological Museum, where conservators, charged with the heritage of “non-Western” cultures, must interpret the figure of “the other.”
Here I am speaking at my high school, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, in their TEDx conference. Drawing on the theme, “Growth,” I reminisce about my path from an aspiring teen neurobiologist who once poked the neurons of sea slugs to an anthropologist who studies the material practices of cultural memory.