Case study: Professor Aviva Burnstock

Head of the Department for Conservation and Technology, The Courtauld Institute of Art

“Learning history of art after my science degree was at first like learning a foreign language. Still, every day, I’m learning on the job. Some of the paintings I work on have been there for hundreds of years and I’m a very small intervention, so it’s important to respect them.”

I study and conserve paintings from the 12th Century onwards and teach students to investigate their history, materials and the techniques used to make them. My work bridges history of art, conservation and science. I enjoy seeing the incredibly skilful things people made and stories behind them.

Conservators combine knowledge about science and art to interpret how a painting might have looked when it was made, before deciding how to conserve it. This requires understanding of history, materials and how they were used by artists. Use of particular painting materials might indicate where and when a painting was created. Old paintings have gone through many lives and we need to understand which scientific techniques could reveal their history. Techniques found in medicine, including X-radiography and microscopy, are used to examine paintings. My students learn basic and applied science to understand analytical methods and how materials change with time.

In the future, the way we preserve art might be affected by regulations in environmental control. If we can control exposure to light and moisture, we can delay the deterioration of materials. However, future priorities for the use and cost of energy and resources may necessitate compromises. Modern art combines diverse materials that require different approaches to conservation, and the materials available to artists will continue changing. We must also consider how to preserve new, internet-based art.

Before moving to England from Australia at aged 16, I had an alternative education and didn’t have to go to lessons. At Camden School for Girls, then a grammar school in London, I struggled to settle in and bunked everything except maths and choir. I was in the bottom set for most subjects and moved down a year. My parents moved me to a smaller school, King Alfred, where I did lots of art and loved watching seedlings grow in biology, but was clueless about what to do next.

I studied Neurobiology at the University of Sussex. It was what my father thought I should do but I loved the mixture of maths, biology and psychology. Hoping to combine science with my interest in art, I completed the Courtauld’s postgraduate diploma in Conservation of Easel Paintings. During an internship as regional galleries conservator for New South Wales, I realised I still had much to learn and returned to the Courtauld for my PhD exploring the use of scanning electron microscopy to study paintings. I then worked in the National Gallery’s scientific department before joining the Courtauld as a Lecturer.