At the McMaster Museum of Art (MMA), we find that “troubling” the museum in the twenty-first century is not just an interest of our museum colleagues and our peers at McMaster University; it is also an interest of the public who walk through our doors and engage with us on social media. Recent publications, such as The Social Work of Museums (Silverman, 2010), Imagining Resistance: Visual Culture & Activism in Canada (Cronin & Robertson, 2011), Museums and Higher Education Working Together (Boddington et al., 2013), Democratising the Museum (Runnel, 2014), and Complex Social Change (Mills et al., 2015), as well as numerous articles in various recently edited volumes on contemporary museology, repeatedly note the role of the museum in the twenty-first century as social incubator: a place where the public often first locates the shifts and changes of social mores, values, innovations, and technologies in the world around them. At the MMA we pursue this activity as not just a museological intention but also, very much, as a consequence of our position as a university-affiliated art museum. It is this affiliation that makes us unique in our regional milieu and also binds us to our host institution, McMaster University. McMaster is a research incubator for faculty and students; moreover, it is also, since 2010, decidedly focused on integrating its campus community—through student, faculty, and staff contributions—to the broader public beyond its walls. It is a model where the university locates itself in the twenty-first century, and the MMA is an active participant in this goal and transition.
The Unvarnished Truth: exploring the material history of paintings is one of many integrated exhibition projects developed and produced by the MMA since 2006. In partnership with faculty and student researchers across disciplines, the MMA—as a fine art museum—has worked with departments as varied as Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour; Family Medicine; Physics & Astronomy; Studio Art; English & Cultural Studies; Theatre & Film Studies; and Classics, among others, to produce exhibitions where research crosses over into the realm of visual culture. The Unvarnished Truth brings together the scholarly research of applied radiation sciences, anthropology, art history, biomedical engineering, as well as the expertise of conservators, conservation scientists, forensic art historians, curators, and scientists, to examine nine paintings from the collections of the Museum.
The ten essays in this volume, in most instances, provide both a survey of the history and practices of a discipline as applied to works of art in the museum, as well as a discussion of the findings in the MMA project. The introductory chapter by Hathaway and MacDonald outlines the tasks of and participants in the project. Dr. Dickey’s essay on connoisseurship defines the term—what it is and what it entails—as well as how connoisseurship “contributed to the professionalization of art dealing and to the rise of art history as a discipline distinct from the practice of art.” Pocobene’s essay on conservation and condition issues, and Dr. Murray’s on conservation science, outline the history, facts, and means of conservation practices in the museum and their role in both restoring and preserving cultural heritage, as well as eliciting information from material objects. Hathaway’s technical art history essay offers a primer on the various testing formats and methods applied to the objects in the MMA project, including microscopy, infrared reflectography, X-radiography, and X-ray fluorescence, among others. MacDonald provides a chapter on the history of pigments and the technical findings of pigment analysis at the MMA, which reveal information about artists’ changing practices. Dr. McNeill’s essay on imaging provides an overview of what is available, and for the MMA project, what was revealed through both X-ray and neutron methods. Dr. Holubizky provides a concluding chapter that considers both the possibilities and the limits of the testing project, and what science provides the art museum and its collections. As Holubizky notes in the essay’s final section, “We can never know the creative act, and attempting to do so through descriptive language and analytical terms enters into the persuasiveness of erudition. Likewise, science ‘cannot ‘unmake’ and reveal the act—the creative moment—or reverse its arrow of time. If the creative act and impulses of the past may never be fully known or recoverable, the active engine of curiosity—and understanding our limits (of the eye)—keeps art alive.” Dr. Spronk’s afterword, “Disciplines in Motion,” considers the shifting dynamics of interdisciplinary practice in museum work, particularly with respect to the role of conservators and curators. His essay shows how contemporary museum work mines science and art to aid in the act of knowing a work of art.
The Unvarnished Truth is a project that began with the research inquiries of McMaster PhD student Brandi Lee MacDonald, which slowly but steadily developed into a many-layered, interdisciplinary project to include the work of researchers from around the world. This “project” is properly defined and presented as a body of research, an exhibition, a publication, a website, a series of public events, and a touring exhibition. There are many people to thank. First and foremost, Brandi Lee MacDonald, without whose initial inquiry into the numismatics collections of the MMA this project would never have transpired. Secondly, to Dr. Fiona McNeill, Associate Vice-President of Research at McMaster University, who opened up the team’s access to testing equipment on campus as well as fully funded the early stages of research. Many thanks to the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Museum Assistance Program, Access to Heritage grants, which has fully funded the exhibition, publication, public events, and tour of the exhibition. To Dr. Ron Spronk, who generously gave of his time and expertise as well as provided introductions to global contacts and his many wonderful colleagues at Queens’ University—Nenagh Hathaway, Dr. Stephanie Dickey, and Dr. Alison Murray—we are forever grateful.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the following colleagues in the United States who assisted in various components of the project’s research, development, and production: Phoebe Dent Weil (Northern Light Studio), Gianfranco Pocobene (Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum), Don H. Johnson (Rice University) as well as our European colleague, Dr. Peter Klein (University of Hamburg, Germany); and in Canada, Joanne O’Meara (University of Guelph), Ajesh Singh and Sandra Charbonneau (Mohawk College, Hamilton), Joshua Vandersteldt (Nray Services Inc., Hamilton); and Jim Britten, Victoria Jarvis, Elstan Desouza, Mike Noseworthy, and Evan McNabb (McMaster University).
I would also like to thank those individuals who provided key production work for us: Kyle Kuchmey (website), Rob Gray (publications and exhibition didactics), Joan Padgett (editing), Nathalie de Blois (translation), and Matt Walker (exhibition furniture).
We are pleased that the exhibition will travel to Edmonton, Thunder Bay, and Kingston. Many thanks to sister institutional colleagues Catherine Crowston, Sharon Godwin, Nadia Kurd, and Jan Allen for supporting the project in its touring phase.
Finally, as always, we are grateful to the Ontario Arts Council, McMaster University, Judith Harris and Tony Woolfson, and our friends and members, who annually make the programming at the MMA possible.