Robert Erdmann, Senior Scientist at the Rijksmuseum and Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Amsterdam, shares his experiences on his interdisciplinary work to help the world access, preserve, and understand its cultural heritage.

Entering the hidden world of the department of Conservation and Restoration of the Rijksmuseum in the Atelier Building is exciting since it is an area that is normally off limits to regular visitors. Robert Erdmann, Senior Scientist at the Rijksmuseum and Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Amsterdam, guides us through a large locked door, after which we suddenly stand face to face with the ‘Kanye West of the 17th century’, Rembrandt’s famous portrait of Marten Soolmans on the occasion of his wedding, temporarily separated from the accompanying portrait of his wife Oopjen Coppit.

Combining the worlds of science and arts
How does a materials scientist end up in this building? Erdmann: ‘I was very fortunate to be given a private behind the scenes tour of the conservation studios at the Art Institute of Chicago. A painting conservator invited me to gently touch a Monet before she had cleaned it, and in the thrill of that moment there was a kind of spark of realization that I would love to try to make a career helping people to get closer to their cultural heritage. Previously, I had been working as an Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona on completely different things: simulations of microscopic flow through porous media and experiments on microgravity metal solidification performed on the International Space Station. So I thought that I might be able to contribute by applying materials science, imaging, and computational techniques to art objects. To make a long story short, I ended up working on individual projects with several museums around the world, and that led to being invited to serve as a resident scholar at the Netherland Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS) in Wassenaar, where I had the opportunity to work directly with museums in the Netherlands. I loved it so much that I decided to move here permanently. Now at the Rijksmuseum, I find myself surrounded by people with different backgrounds who try to preserve and understand its cultural heritage.

The Bosch Research and Conservation Project
Erdmann continues: ‘To my delight, I was invited to join an interdisciplinary research team to study the oeuvre of Hieronymous Bosch. The team had art historians, a technical art historian, a conservator, a photographer, and me. I joined the project with the insistence that if I were to participate, I would be a co-equal team member and not just a ‘technician’ with a subordinate role. I felt engaged in the Bosch project because the team took me really seriously and engaged me in art historical and conservation questions, and I engaged them in technical issues related to the imaging, analysis, and visualization of the results. This gave me the opportunity to learn the language, challenges and insights of the other team members. For me, speaking the language of researchers in other fields is a prerequisite for interdisciplinary teamwork. . We ended up as partners in developing a variety of completely new ways of looking at paintings..

Why cultural heritage needs materials science and computer science
‘I carefully observed the daily practice of my colleagues, a sort of ‘reverse Jane Goodall’ kind of thing. I saw the technical difficulty they encountered in comparing images of different details in different paintings: the photography was not standardized, the images were small and low-resolution, and sharing these comparisons with other colleagues was very laborious. I tried to look for opportunities where I could contribute by developing new technologies that are of use to them. In the end, we developed at least 20 new technologies for things like processing very high-resolution images, fusing images from different kinds of cameras together, and constructing interactive visualizations to aid in making comparisons, all drawn from my past work in different fields. For example, I developed the so-called ‘curtain viewer’, a visualization tool that can show different layers of a painting (sketches, infrared, retouches) in a new way. We can easily collect dozens of gigabytes of image data for a single painting, so it’s also a real challenge to make this data available online in a useful form. .

Interdisciplinary teamwork
‘I have to say I’m grateful that the other team members were very willing to be canaries in the coalmine, probably because of our mutual respect and trust. Building trust is an essential part of interdisciplinary work. Unfortunately, there is a long history of researchers in the sciences entering into the humanities and social sciences, acting like they are smarter than everyone else. I have great admiration for the way art historians, photographers, and conservators look at the world, and I think we can all benefit by learning to see the world differently. For me, this willingness to work outside of our comfort zones is an essential part of a successful interdisciplinary approach. Just because you have a team with a lot of disciplines in it, this does not make it interdisciplinary. We have to go outside our own disciplines, otherwise it’s just a collection of people doing their own thing. The value comes from the overlap.’

There is not much low hanging fruit left
‘Before the birth of modern science, so-called natural philosophers were generalists. Over time, disciplines and sub-disciplines have emerged. Specialisation has brought us far, but now sometimes we cannot even easily understand the work of colleagues in the next office because we have grown so far apart. The jargon is so different that, unfortunately, we miss out the fact that many of us are working on solving the same problems. In my view this hyperspecialisation has run its course. There is not much low hanging fruit left in the disciplines. We have to plant new trees. Most of the major advances in science and technology these days involve combining insights or techniques from many disciplines.

A glance at the future
‘My aim is to help the world access, preserve and understand its cultural heritage, so that is still a big challenge to work on. One of my PhD advisors had a philosophy that every seven years you should completely reinvent yourself. I fully endorse this idea. We risk falling into a rut, limiting our creativity and leading to boredom. I’m infinitely curious. I’m most interested when I’m crossing boundaries and I try to spend at least one hour every day learning about something I have no idea about.’

Robert Erdmann will be keynote speaker at the first National Interdisciplinary Education Conference on 2 February. For tickets click here