The Gettens Cabinet

By Anna Lin-Schweitzer
Sep 11, 2017
The Gettens Cabinet, in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, contains samples of paint, varnish, and other materials collected by scientists in the 1930s.

Just around the corner from the renowned Forbes Pigment Collection in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies sits an unassuming, unsung hero of conservators and conservation scientists.

The Gettens Cabinet, created in the 1930s, stands over 6 feet tall, with 85 drawers. It looks a bit like a library card catalogue in appearance, but the contents include sample materials such as “Blue Pigments,” “Wood Specimens,” and “Gas Exposed Paint.”

The cabinet is named after Rutherford John Gettens (1900–1974), the Fogg Museum’s first chemist (and, in fact, the first scientist at any museum in the United States). Gettens and his team of conservators compiled this important resource at a time when conservation science was just emerging as a field. The idea of applying scientific methods to the study of art and art history was relatively new, and the cabinet demonstrated the principles and practices of a budding discipline.

A photograph of Gettens is displayed in front of his cabinet in the Straus Center.
A photograph of Gettens is displayed in front of his cabinet in the Straus Center.

Fogg director Edward Waldo Forbes (1873–1969) hired Gettens in 1928, after he had done some experimentation of his own, testing colors and binding materials to better understand the painting techniques used by 15th-century Italian masters. But Forbes lacked the scientific knowledge and equipment necessary to fully grasp the chemistry of these materials. Gettens’s chemistry expertise would help fill in the gaps.

Gettens documented and analyzed pigments and mediums to determine the way these materials were prepared, their chemical and physical properties, how long they lasted, and where they could be found in art and nature. He later worked with the government-funded Paint Testing and Research Laboratory (PTRL) to analyze paints under varying temperature, humidity, and light. Many of these projects from his work with both Forbes and the PTRL were stored—and still remain—in the Gettens Cabinet.

A Rare Resource

The cabinet does more than store historical artifacts; it houses aged samples that researchers can use as a reference for studying works of art. The cabinet has laid the groundwork for numerous conservation research projects, demonstrating the changes that pigments, varnishes, and other painting materials incur over time. Scientists may be freed from waiting years—or even decades—to test theories about how certain materials age.

Straus Center director Narayan Khandekar holds a 1936 painted panel from the Gettens Cabinet next to a jar of Manganese Violet powder from the Forbes Pigment Collection. Eighty-one years later, the hues remain very similar.
Straus Center director Narayan Khandekar holds a 1936 painted panel from the Gettens Cabinet next to a jar of Manganese Violet powder from the Forbes Pigment Collection. Eighty-one years later, the hues remain very similar.

Few scientists in the early days of conservation science had the level of foresight and planning that spurred Gettens to create this library, and thus such an extensive collection of aging painted panels (and other materials) is extremely rare.

Besides aiding the Straus Center conservators and scientists, the cabinet also supports colleagues from other institutions with their research. For example, a visiting conservation scientist recently used a sample of a binding agent to determine whether the analytical method he was developing worked equally well on aged and new samples.

Narayan Khandekar, director of the Straus Center and senior conservation scientist, pulled out a drawer titled “Wood Specimens,” which contained small slabs of wood, each identified with a label. He said one might analyze the cell structure of a sample of one of these wood slabs under a microscope and then compare it to a sample from a piece of art, in order to identify the type of wood used to support the art. This process helped conservators identify the linden wood used in Mummy Portrait of a Woman with Earrings, a panel portrait from ancient Egypt that was originally used to cover the face of the deceased.

An Educational Tool

Many of the drawers contain historical samples that provide lessons on how objects were displayed or stored.

These hand-wrought metal nails and rings were once used to hang panel paintings. Each is labeled with the name of the work to which it originally belonged.
These hand-wrought metal nails and rings were once used to hang panel paintings. Each is labeled with the name of the work to which it originally belonged.

“The cabinet is an incredibly good teaching tool,” said Khandekar, picking up a hand-wrought nail and a metal ring from a drawer titled “Hardware from Old Paintings.” “You show students these items and they remember what they look like. This type of information helps inform them in their studies down the line.”

The cabinet preserves important pieces of the past while also symbolizing the museums’ enduring role in instituting and furthering the practices of conservation science.

“This cabinet is a physical manifestation of the pioneering spirit that was happening here,” Khandekar said. “We are standing on the shoulders of the people who established the field.”

Anna Lin-Schweitzer was the Summer 2017 writing and editing intern in the Communications Division at the Harvard Art Museums.