We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more

Science and Art: Separated by a Common Language?

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation

More than meets the eye

The material written for the 'more than meets the eye' visitor trail at the V&A and the promotional literature for the 'creating SPARKS'  festival, of which it is a part, speak of science and art as two separate entities that need to meet occasionally but which cannot be completely and permanently integrated. It is often claimed that conservation is a place where this fusion has actually taken place. So it might be reasonable to study the ways that conservators talk to see if they use a common language that could be applied elsewhere to assist with communication between different cultures.

Art and Science Separated: the Creation Myth

In the beginning science and art were one. The development of knowledge about the preparation and properties of materials went hand-in-hand with the development of the decorative arts of dyeing, painting, pottery and metal-working. During the Renaissance the philosophies of art, architecture, engineering and science were comprehended by all intelligent people. This universal polymathy was the sign of the 'renaissance man'. In the 19th century the cultured classes were as likely to go to a lecture on the latest scientific discovery as one on art or exploration. Scientific knowledge was fashionable, the talk of the tea-party.

But following the death of Prince Albert  in 1861 something disruptive happened. Separation rather than integration occurred. The South Kensington Museum became two separate museums, one of art, one of science. During the 20th century the trend continued and it became both allowable and fashionable to specialise. To facilitate specialisation, school and university curricula made it nearly impossible to study arts and science subjects simultaneously. Finally it became acceptable to not understand something important merely because it was 'scientific', yet stylish to feign an understanding of art.

The Changing Meaning of Words

If this simplified history is to be challenged or confirmed, there ought to be separable subjects called science and art plus a word for the something that is both of them together. Unfortunately the words art, craft, science, philosophy and technology have been used carelessly and almost interchangeably for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (c.1950), for example, gives one definition of an artist as 'one who pursues a practical science' and provides 'science' as one meaning of the word 'craft'. 

Clearly, in many contexts the two words together cover all you need to know about any subject. The title index in your local library will yield hundreds of books dealing with the 'science and art of ..' subjects, ranging from war to psychotherapy and pottery to rhinoplasty. But there is no single word that denotes art and science as one entity. In these books science is seen as dealing with organisation and rules, things that are well defined and predictable. Whereas an art involves freedom to act more intuitively.

Prince Albert, in a fundraising speech for the Great Exhibition, said:

Science discovers these laws of power, motion and transformation: Industry applies them to the raw matter, which the earth yields us in abundance, which becomes only valuable by knowledge: Art teaches us the immutable laws of beauty and symmetry and gives to our productions forms in accordance with them.1

So, in the mid-19th century, science was about observation and interpretation and art was still subject to rules. By the early 20th century it was quite obvious to scientists what science was; a branch of study which brought together demonstrated truths and observed facts which were systematically classified and unified under general laws. Science gave trustworthy methods of discovering new truth within its own domain. By the late 20th century, scientists were happy with the view that creativity in the arts is characteristically intensely personal, reflecting both the feelings and the ideas of the artist. By contrast, scientific creativity is always constrained by self-consistency, by trying to understand nature and by what is already known.2

Specialism and Comprehensibility

C.P. Snow cites specialisation as the root cause of the development of these two cultures. Yet by the mid-1430s Leon Battista Alberti was already able to distinguish a whole range of specialisations, technical and artistic, in his book Della Pittura. If the description 'Renaissance man' is to have any credence, it means that in that period some people were able to grasp large parts of what each of the different specialists had to offer. The second renaissance, in the mid-19th century, may not have been as all-embracing as is sometimes proposed. The amalgamation of the art collections with those of science and industry in the South Kensington Museum may only have been an unsuccessful experiment born of expedience rather than logic. Yet the audiences for anything new, be it science or art, were there.

Today, a book such as the 1880 South Kensington Museum introduction to the bronze collection would be aimed solely at an arts audience, but then it was financially supported by advertisements for books on chemistry. It was assumed that progress in either art or science could be comprehended by an educated person. In 1815 the largest section of the Encyclopaedia Britannica given over to science is dedicated to 'amusements', that is simple DIY demonstrations of scientific principles, the sort of thing you might find today in an interactive science museum. 

It is possible that the point of cultural separation of art and science occurred when success in either field became dependent on such a degree of specialisation that the intelligent onlooker had to make choices. This would be increasingly critical as individual specialisations became so difficult that they could barely be explained even to those in closely related areas. Relativity and quantum physics cannot be understood through the medium of amusements. They can only be understood by speaking mathematics, a language that even many scientists find difficult.

Science and Specialism at the V&A

Before the establishment of a formal Conservation Department at the V&A in 1960, the workshop staff were mostly unspecialised. To them, working on restoration, packing, or mounting for display was all the same, whether it was for a work of art or a scientific model. But for the last fifty years there has been a rigorous policy of conservation specialisation. The specialisations have become deeper, concentrating on difference rather than overall similarity. There have only been two Heads of the Conservation Department, both scientists. Under them the number of people trained in science has grown so that, at the time of writing, there are six permanent employees claiming to work solely as conservation scientists.

The physical integration of scientists within the V&A Conservation Department has been hailed as an excellent model, much more satisfactory than a separate service or research institution. However, the introduction of specialist scientists within a group of specialist conservators dealing with fine and decorative arts objects is not necessarily a sign that conservation is a fusion of science and art. Or that there is a commonly comprehended language.

Science and Conservation

While scientists become interested in the environment, which surrounds all objects, conservators may focus on possible interactions only with their material of choice. While scientists demand more and more time to get a clear idea of some very small part of the vast range of relevant phenomena, conservators have less and less time between deadlines to wait for even the simplest answer to their immediate scientific problems. As any one area of conservation science becomes more complex and mathematical, it becomes less comprehensible by the concerned conservator, and foreign even to another specialist scientist.

Conservation is a technology, an applied science. C. P. Snow was concerned that pure science had had no effective interaction with industrial technology. That pure science is not an integral part of conservation technology is obvious from the way we talk about it. In 1982 the IIC conference was called 'Science and Technology in the Service of Conservation' (science as socially inferior) and in 1997 the British Museum symposium drew attention to 'The Interface between Science and Conservation' (science as alien).

In general, non-scientists are able to distinguish the scientists among those with whom they work. About something of no interest to themselves they will say, 'You're a scientist, you'll find this interesting'. About something that they can't be bothered to work out, 'You're a scientist, you can explain this to me'. About something that they are afraid of, 'All I want is for a scientist to tell me what to do'. It is fairly easy to co-exist as long as there doesn't have to be mutual comprehension.

Attempts at real interaction may be more fraught. If a scientist says 'The analysis you have requested will use my time and resources. Why do you need to know this?' a conservator may take offence. If a scientist says 'You really don't need to worry about that, the risk is vanishingly small' a conservator may become incensed that the scientist doesn't care. And if a scientist says 'Your practical interventions have no effect and are totally unnecessary', conservators may just politely ignore the advice.

Can There Be A Happy Ending?

The current usage of the words art and science does not allow them to overlap. They are different aspects of creativity, with different goals, inhabited by different types of personality. Between the stereotypical extremes of the artist and the scientist is the huge, uncategorised bulk of humanity  which includes conservators and curators as well as bank-clerks and bakers.

Conservation is not really a bridge between science and art any more than bakery is. The vast bulk of  the conservation of cultural heritage has nothing to do with art at all. The problems that the conservation field must solve are complex and diverse and may require some involvement of scientists. This will usually be on a more frequent and local level than a baker would require. A highly complex and diverse museum collection needs a lot of scientists so that there is a good chance that a science specialism will overlap with a conservation material specialism.

The deeper you delve into any subject, the more information you obtain which is helpful to that specialisation and the less time you have to gather information from other disciplines. If people remain productively digging at the bottom of their personal mine-shaft there is no prospect of communication. Yet, as with all organisational problems, the happy ending depends on communication. The difficulty is deciding on the level of mutual comprehension that allows fruitful communication between specialisations. The training of scientists and conservators must include a minimum vocabulary that not only allows functional communication but engenders some mutual respect.

Words like 'polymer' and 'solvent' are essential to the technology of conservation and should not be seen as scientific. 'Chromatography' and 'spectrometer' are less central but need to be comprehended to establish pragmatic communication. If non-scientists can use words like 'dipole' or 'anionic' correctly and fluently they will have gained insight into the workings of a scientist's mind. An understanding of 'orbital hybridisation' will probably never lead to the solution of  any practical conservation problems and should be left to those with the time and aptitude for metaphysics.

These are examples from the lexicon of chemistry; there would, of course, be other specialist vocabularies that need to be shared. Once training has instilled the vocabulary, there must be opportunities for people to peer a little way down other peoples' mineshafts, recognising that there is no value in trying to get everyone down to the bottom of every single mine. Specialisation is desirable; the only way to counteract its divisive potential is to generate the mechanisms and opportunities for communication.


1  Timbs., John, The year-book of facts, David Bogue, 1851
2 Wolpert., Lewis, The Unnatural Nature of Science, Faber & Faber, 1992