Students interested in the science behind art and its conservation will now be able to study at West Virginia University in the Bachelor of Arts in Technical Art History program, the first degree of its kind in the nation.
“Technical art history is an exciting and relatively new interdisciplinary research field that brings together the humanities, science and art,” said Rhonda Reymond, associate professor of art history. “It incorporates the close study of a physical object using scientific methods with the humanities-based research of art history. These scientific techniques, or research into the internal structures of a work of art, give us new insights into historical artistic techniques of making and materials as well as changes to the artifact that have occurred over time.”
Technical art history majors will take a variety of courses focusing on art history, scientific analysis and studio arts.
“The scientific analysis in technical art history can tell us of chemical components of paint and metalwork on a chair, what kind of wood was used, what tools might have been used, or if there was a later intervention to the materials or original processes, such as adding glue or modifying the chair with additions or alterations,” Reymond said. “From there, the art historical component extends this scientific analysis through external research that questions the original and altered form of the chair and where it was commonly produced, or how a particular non-indigenous wood or the metalwork got to that center of manufacture.”
“The studio arts training of the technical art historian means they might try to recreate the chair to further understand its production and any anomalies,” Reymond added. “These analyses may find that particular tools were introduced to a region well before we thought they were, or that there were plants common to an area used for paint pigment that no longer thrive in that locale or that we must care for and preserve objects in different ways because of their chemical make-up.”
Because WVU offers a wide range of majors and courses, it is the ideal location for a technical art history major.
“The technical art history major is an ideal fit for WVU because we not only have the art history major within the School of Art & Design but also a studio art department that has majors in a variety of media,” Reymond said. “Students have access to courses in chemistry and physics, among other sciences, and the university has one of the foremost forensic and investigative science programs in the country. Courses offered in anthropology also enhance the technical art history major as do some through public history.”
Extra-curricular activities and programs offered at WVU will also benefit technical art history majors.
“Beyond coursework, students can gain practical experience through the Art Museum of WVU, plus the other two museums on campus, as well as through state and regional museums and conservation centers,” Reymond said. “The School of Art & Design also offers courses through its affiliation with San Gemini Preservation Studies in Italy, which fits perfectly with the curriculum of a technical art history major.”
WVU has hired Hanna Szczepanowska as a visiting assistant professor to teach many of the courses within the technical art history major. Szczepanowska most recently worked as a senior conservation scientist in Singapore to design a conservation laboratory and sustainable research program to be used for museum professionals. While in Singapore, she conducted field work exploring indigenous materials quintessential to Southeast Asia like rattan, lacquer and gutta percha. Szczepanowska received her Ph.D. in material science from Universite de Lyon, France.
“Students will bridge art with its material aspect, shedding light on the techniques, methods, forms and shapes used and misused by artists,” Szczepanowski said. “The intricacies of technological ingenuity underlying art creations over the span of centuries, analysis of materials and their preservation will be the core of this major. My professional trajectory spans across continents and art historical periods; from Northern Europe and North America to South East Asia, from the early medieval illuminations to aboriginal art. I am excited to share those experiences with students and bring my knowledge to the classroom.