Photograph by Dan Winters
Photograph by Dan Winters

This chemist is preserving art—before it’s too late

At New York’s Met, conservation scientist Eric Breitung is preventing damage to priceless treasures—and sharing what he's learned.

This story appears in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Eric Breitung works at the intersection of art and science—literally. A conservation scientist at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, he uses analytical chemistry to help preserve priceless artwork. But where others concentrate on specific paintings or sculptures, Breitung—a lifelong art lover and former General Electric research scientist—takes a broad approach: “My focus is the environment of the whole museum.”

That means preparing the Met for some 60 exhibitions each year, in spaces that range from 100 to 20,000 square feet. Design elements for each exhibit contain chemicals that could be damaging, depending on the art. For instance, acetic acid in a fabric display-case liner might be safe for a clothing exhibit but would corrode metallic art. Breitung and his three-member team are trying to develop a first ever “Rosetta stone of volatile chemicals that are in modern materials, so we can determine what levels are problematic for different types of art.”

Breitung’s lab is at the forefront of preventive conservation in the museum world. “Conservation started by looking at how to treat objects that have been damaged…Now we’re thinking about how to set up displays and storage so that kind of damage doesn’t happen in the first place.”

The concept isn’t new, says Breitung. But the focus is. “We’re sharing everything we’re learning on the web in hopes that others will apply the same principles to their cultural heritage.” That goes for anyone with art, whether it’s in a museum or a home.