November 30, 2016

Watchworthy Wednesday: Virtual Field Trip Delves into Museum Science

Category: Digital Learning
Infrared xray of artwork

With a camera that sees infrared light pointed at a centuries-old painting by artist Jan Provost, the original sketch underneath appears. The x-rayed image shows how different the original drawing was from what was ultimately painted. To analyze the minerals in the paint used, scientists use XRF (X-ray fluorescence), a non-destructive analytical technique that determines the elemental composition of materials. Such science and technology can be used to answer all sorts of art history and scientific questions.

That was the point of a virtual field trip today behind the scenes at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). The free event, sponsored by Detroit Public Television (DPTV), took 7,000 students and teachers from all over the country into the restricted conservation area of the DIA to help them explore new ideas and dig deep under the surface of art and science through a video that allowed real-time chats. Lessons touched on chemistry, physics, biology and geology.

painting by Jan ProvostIn the video, research scientist Cathy Selvius De Roo analyzes one of the minerals, azurite, in Provost’s 1525 painting, “The Last Judgment.” She notes that the mineral, depending on how finely it was ground, made up the different shades of blue that Provost used. Such material was used 500 years ago and would be consistent with the paints of that era.

Most people are surprised by the science, technology and engineering used in art conservation, De Roo said.

“All the sciences influence conservation science,” she said. “It helps to have a ferocious curiosity.”

As part of the field trip, lesson plans and digital badges are offered. For those who missed the tour, it is available on demand online and a self-guided tour also is available. The program, part of DPTV’s “Digital Adventure! Connected Learning for All Ages,” was produced through to a partnership with the DIA, Wayne State University, ISD leadership in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb and the State of Michigan.

Editor’s note: Watchworthy Wednesday posts highlight interesting DML resources and appear in DML Central every Wednesday. Any tips for future posts are welcome. Please comment below or send email to