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Chemistry LibreTexts

Art as a Teaching Tool in Science Curricula

Visual art provides real-world science examples that pique student interest in chemistry and physics (optics) courses. This approach has been used at many levels including K-12 [4], undergraduate [5,6] as well as graduate education [7]. From the perspective of using art pieces as samples for analytical chemistry instruction, there are relatively few examples in the literature. Professor Margaret Merritt at Wellesley College used a project focused on pigment analyses of art objects in an Analytical Chemistry course as a means to illustrate the needs of modern analytical chemistry, which requires understanding the multiple component steps (sampling, sample dissolution, sample preparation) involved in an analysis [8]. In this approach, the students wrote proposals and had to seek the input of other experts including an art curator who was a member of the Wellesley arts faculty as well as experts at Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It appears from the information available that art objects were only used for part of the course to illustrate one particular type of instrument.

Paintings provide a unique complex sample that has the potential to require knowledge in nearly all the major sub-disciplines of chemistry (analytical, biochemistry, inorganic, organic, and physical). Any pigment analysis often requires inorganic components. The pigments can also aggregate and form nanocomposites. Binders are made of plant or animal materials (milk or egg proteins) and thus highlight analysis of biochemical components since they have different amino acid contents [9,10]. Thus, the proteomic analysis of binders is often a critical aspect for solving a conservation analysis problem. Sometimes additional varnishes are used which require knowledge of organic chemistry and organic analyses. All of these issues coupled with required chemical analysis provide a highly interdisciplinary project for chemical analysis all contained in one sample.

Studies of the molecular aspects of paintings has such great historic as well as scientific importance that the Dutch government via the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) developed a cooperative project entitled “MOLART” – Molecular Aspects of Aging of Painted Art. The goals of the researchers involved with MOLART aimed to develop a scientific framework at the molecular level for art conservation [7]. Approximately seven Ph.D. theses, many of them with a chemical analysis focus have emerged as output from the MOLART project.