Chemistry as a catalyst for examining art

Victoria Cooley came to UW-Madison with an interest in chemistry. She’ll leave this spring with a unique set of skills, knowledge and experiences that she will use to pursue a future as an art conservation scientist.

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Senior Victoria Cooley stands in front of a piece called "Danu" by contemporary African artist El Anatsui in the Chazen Museum of Art. (Photo by Sarah Morton)

After a freshman year filled with intense math and science courses, Victoria Cooley turned to a novel to unwind. But reading Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, in which a rare-book expert sets off on an adventure after discovering tiny artifacts in the binding of a 15th-century Hebrew manuscript, got her thinking about how she might use a chemistry degree in equally exciting ways.

The Geneva, Illinois, native — and fourth-generation Badger — has spent the past four years pursuing a chemistry major and a certificate in African studies, with a distinct plan of becoming an art conservation scientist specializing in African artifacts.

“Right now, a lot of conservation science is focused on Western art and works on paper,” she says. “And most of it is approached from a fine arts, not a science, background.”

But there’s much to be learned from works of art from Africa, Cooley says, particularly items utilized in ceremonies or daily life. “Much of African art is not meant to be conserved,” she says. “It’s meant to be used, not hung on a museum wall.”

Cooley, who is a recipient of the Leo and Jean Besozzi Scholarship, which recognizes high-achieving L&S seniors, is particularly fascinated with Islamic art from around 1100. It’s often difficult to determine an object’s provenance by studying its design or ornamentation. But if conservation scientists analyzed the chemical composition of, say, the clay of a vessel, they could pinpoint the region where the material originated.

“That’s where science can tell us more,” she says.

To forge an academic path toward conservation science, Cooley began complementing her chemistry courses with classes in African Studies — delving into geography, history, literature, language and art — and enhancing her studies with activities outside the classroom. 

She regularly attended roundtable discussions on current events through the African Studies department, and after learning a bit of Swahili, she engaged with speakers of the language in Madison. She also assisted a Ghanian artist-in-residence who sculpted unorthodox coffins and studied African artifacts at the Chazen Museum of Art.

Throughout these art and cultural experiences, Cooley continued to build knowledge in chemistry. In fact, she conducted research at four different laboratories so she could learn a wide range of techniques and pick up skills in working with and analyzing sensitive materials — all essential for a life as a conservation scientist handling and examining historic, fragile and unusual works of art.

“The materials I have worked with range from temperature-sensitive polymers and proteins to cell colonies in sterile cleanrooms, light- and air-sensitive organometallic compounds and delicately-fabricated cryogenic metal thermocouples,” she says.

Cooley’s lab work solidified her desire to attend graduate school in art conservation and one day work at a museum with a strong African collection.

“I really enjoy the analysis side of research,” she says. “That’s what I want to apply to art.”