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Photo of Shelley Sturman SHELLEY STURMAN

Shelley Sturman is head of object conservation at the National Gallery of Art. As seen on this episode of Frontiers, Sturman was part of the team of conservators at the National Gallery responsible for restoring one of America's greatest sculptures, Augustus Saint-Gaudens' memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment.

Sturman first became interested in conservation while working on her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Archaeology, which she completed at Brandeis University. During her junior year at the Institute of Archaeology-University of London she took a course on conservation for archaeologists and learned that a profession existed that would combine understanding of materials science, research opportunities into such areas as how art objects are made, methods and materials of artists, detecting authentic works of art from forgeries, and actual hands-on treatment of priceless artworks. After taking the required inorganic, organic and physical chemistry courses, she completed a Master's of Science in Conservation at the University of Delaware.

After graduate school, she had internships at The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and The Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Sturman returned to The Walters for a Fellowship funded by the Mellon Foundation. She has also worked as a conservator for the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Dumbarton Oaks, and The White House. She joined the staff at the National Gallery of Art in 1981 as Sculpture Conservator and became Acting Head of Object Conservation 1983 and then Head in 1987.

One of the exciting things about being an Art Conservator, according to Sturman, is that it is a profession that really allows you to utilize both the right and left sides of your brain. "In other words," she says, "this profession truly marries science with art -- two fields many of us feel we cannot live without. I believe we almost achieve the perfect mix/balance of science and art. As seen on this episode of Frontiers, with the variety of analytical techniques we use, we can actually understand how the artist made an object. We can also find answers to questions such as, is this material (the substrate, the paint, etc.) one this artist could have used? We can begin to find trends by certain artists or periods or locales and then make predictions that have wider ramifications for art history in general."

"I especially like being a sculpture conservator," explains Sturman, "because of the eclectic mix of materials and the variety of different scientific techniques that we must incorporate to understand all the sculptural objects. For example, we have to conserve sculpture made of metal, precious metals such as silver, gold and bronze, as well as less noble ones such as iron, steel and aluminum; all types of ceramic material -- high and low fired, glazed, painted; stone such as beautiful, white marbles, limestones, sandstones, travertine, and rock crystal; glass and enamel; all types of organic materials, including wood; ivory; and wax. Then we use all of the science that goes with that: metallurgy, corrosion science, ceramic science, wood technology, stone deterioration, etc. Sculpture conservators are responsible for the tiniest jewels to the monumental outdoor sculpture! (We also get to use a lot of power tools!)"

In describing her work, Sturman notes that no two days are alike. "We are constantly challenged to find new and creative ways to solve an unusual problem presented by the work of art, caused either by the artist's choice of materials, the aging process, some external intervention, or vandalism," she says. "We are also constantly engaged in trying to prevent deterioration and provide the best environment for the art."

An area of special interest to Sturman is working with living artists and trying to engage them in dialogue about the most appropriate ways to preserve their art. As Sturman explains, "the conservator of contemporary art has to be concerned that her/his treatments will be appropriate for the object but also preserve the artist's original intent for the work. One artist may wish to have the piece slowly change over time, while another may want it to always look the way it did when it left the studio."

Currently, Sturman is also working on two exciting exhibitions that will be on view at the National Gallery of Art in the spring: A retrospective of the work of Alexander Calder and an exhibition about Degas at the Races that features depictions of the horse in paintings, drawings, and sculpture by the famous Impressionist, Edgar Degas. The Object Conservation Department has been heavily involved in preparing for both shows.

Sturman has published widely on a variety of conservation topics and lectured at major universities and at international meetings. She is also co-editor of Saint-Porchaire Ceramics, a book about rare, French Renaissance ceramics.

See Shelley's answers to Ask the Scientists questions.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.