Fact Sheets

Museum Conservation Institute

October 1, 2009

Director: Robert J. Koestler
Total Full-Time Employees: 20
Annual Budget (federal and trust) FY 2008: $3 million

The Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute’s mission is to become the center for specialized technical collection research and conservation for all Smithsonian museums and collections. To fulfill this mission, the institute’s staff members combine their knowledge of materials and the history of technology with state-of-the-art instrumentation and scientific techniques to provide technical research studies and interpretation of art, as well as anthropological and historical objects.

The institute conducts in-depth studies of artistic, anthropological and historic objects using
state-of-the-art analytical techniques to elucidate their provenance, composition and cultural context and improve the Smithsonian’s conservation and collections storage capabilities.

In addition to aiding in conservation of an object, these studies can provide authentication and help determine the object’s level of technological sophistication. Thus the studies assist art historians and conservators as they place objects within a culture and a time period, look for new cultural influences within societies and compare cultural and technological change across different periods and geographic areas. With this information, art historians, historians and archaeologists document cultural interactions and the spread of ideas.

The institute is the only Smithsonian resource for technical studies and analyses for the majority of Smithsonian collections. Technical studies require the latest instrumentation, analytical expertise, art historical knowledge and interpretive abilities.

In 1963, the Museum Conservation Institute was established by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents to respond to the growing need for a scientific laboratory to support conservation of collections in the entire Institution. A newly graduated conservator, a chemist and a secretary with a background in the arts comprised the first staff of what was known then as the Conservation Research Laboratory.

The name of the laboratory was changed to the Conservation Analytical Laboratory in 1965, to better reflect the needs of its constituents. With its move to the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md., in 1983, the laboratory accepted a wider range of responsibilities, including a congressionally mandated national conservation training program and expanded scientific research program in conservation. In 1998, the Board of Regents approved the name change Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education—in recognition of the laboratory’s mission to serve national and international museum communities, as well as the Smithsonian, and provide professional training and education programs. The latest name change to Museum Conservation Institute reaffirms the central role of the unit to provide highly technical conservation science to support the Smithsonian museums and collections.

The institute’s laboratories are equipped with advanced analytical instrumentation, including the following: isotope ratio mass spectroscopy; inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry; Fourier transform infrared spectrometry; Raman spectrometry, including Fourier transform Raman and portable Raman spectroscopy; gas chromatography; pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry; optical microscopy; scanning electron microscopy with X-ray and energy dispersive spectroscopy; xeroradiography; micro-X-ray diffraction; X-ray fluorescence; X-ray radiography; ultraviolet-visible light spectrophotometry; and structured 3-D color scanning of objects.

MCI staff contributes many articles to the professional literature and hosts a monthly series of lectures entitled “Topics in Museum Conservation.”    

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