Core Objectives of the Rathgen-Forschungslabor

Statute, Thematic Foci, Priority Areas and Implementation

According to the statute of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (SMB), the Rathgen-Forschungslabor (RF) is tasked with conducting scientific and technological research on the collections of the SMB and the other institutions of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK). The implementation of its own long-term research projects is likewise a part of the lab’s mandate. The RF is also permitted, to a limited extent, to take on requests from external clients.

The RF is one of very few research institutions in Germany carrying out material analytical museum-object research in order to produce precise answers to technical and archaeometric questions. The RF also supports research aimed at contributing to collecting knowledge on scientific approaches to the preservation of historical monuments and archaeological sites. Some of the institutes doing comparable work include the Doerner Institute at the Bayerische Staatssammlungen in Munich, the Curt-Engelhorn-Zentrum für Archäometrie in Mannheim in partnership with the Klaus-Tschira-Archäometrie-Zentrum at Heidelberg University, the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in association with Johannes-Gutenberg Universität in Mainz and the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum in Bochum, as well as the individual State Offices for the Preservation of Historical Monuments and the various technical colleges spread across Germany.

In its investigation and preservation of mobile and immobile cultural and artistic assets, the RF, as the scientific representative of the SMB, has a nationally unique position and strives to be one of Germany’s centres of expertise in the field of cultural-heritage research.

In order to continue to play a leading role in the field of cultural-heritage research, the RF will need to further develop its resources and competences. In accordance with the recommendations of the Structural Commission of the SMB, the RF will seek to strengthen its connection to the original roots of the research laboratory in the 19th century while also preparing itself to better face the challenges of cultural heritage research in the 21st century.

The RF’s core objectives will be implemented through five equally weighted thematic foci and five transversal priority areas.

1. Preventative conservation

Preventive conservation is a new development within conservation science. Its aim is to optimise storage and exhibition conditions in order to better preserve collections. Through preventive conservation, we not only can avoid lasting damage to the objects, but we can also reduce the need for ‘interventive’ restoration treatments and the costs these incur.

The breadth of preventive conservation is wide. It ranges from investigating contaminants to analysing light and climatic conditions in museum spaces. It also includes pest management and assessing the biocide exposure in the collections.

Since 2009, the RF has made an active commitment to sustainable Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for the SPK’s collections and institutions. IPM seeks to avoid insect-inflicted damage to objects without relying on biocidal products that might pose a threat to museum employees and visitors. The consequences brought about by the use of biocides in museum institutions are a challenge for those trying to protect workers from these poisons. For this reason, the RF is also dedicated to investigating the biocide exposure in the collections, in order to attain an overview of the contamination that will aid risk-assessment and reveal options for decontamination.

In addition to this, we are improving the collections’ preservation conditions by implementing light-optimisation measures. This entails developing an up-to-date lighting policy and implementing contaminant and climatic controls in the collection areas. The RF has successfully developed competencies in this field of study that are unmatched in Germany.

2. Understanding the aging and deterioration of cultural assets

The fact that the collection objects being studied are “old,” and therefore no longer in their original condition, poses a unique challenge for analysis. The objects have all experienced different conditions between their creation and the moment of analysis, and these conditions have left widely varying traces on the cultural assets. Surfaces can be affected by colours changing, dirt adhering, metals oxidising, pigments discolouring, binding agents disintegrating and so on.

To understand the changes to objects caused by aging, it’s necessary to conduct chemical and physical analyses of the change processes. Sometimes these processes must be artificially reconstructed—by artificially aging objects in climate chambers, for instance. Conclusions from these analytical results must be applied correctly to objects manufactured in the past. Better chemical and physical comprehension of the changes caused by aging can also lead to improvements in preventive-conservation measures and conservation science.

3. Support for new, efficient and sustainable conservation and restoration strategies in close cooperation with other SPK colleagues

Conservation science defines itself as applied research towards better preservation and more responsible use of movable and immovable art and cultural assets, as well as collections. The research focuses on developing new materials and more efficient technologies for conserving and restoring collection objects. Further strides in conservation science can only be achieved through intensive collaboration among conservators in the collections. An example of this sort of collaboration is the development of gentler cleaning methods using plasma- or soft-particle flows.

4. Technical analysis that incorporates imaging technologies (2D and 3D)

Technical analysis investigates the material of artworks to gain insights into production techniques and workshop practices, as well as to carry out thematic studies of artists, schools, periods, and influences. Technical analysis can also support provenance research and help in the identification of forgeries. Today, technical analysis is an important component and the foundation of much art-historical investigation. New technological developments that go beyond classic X-ray images – especially those featuring two- and three-dimensional imaging techniques – have become standard practice in the scientific facilities of many museums, libraries, and archives. The RF follows these developments carefully and seeks to integrate this new aspect of the field in close cooperation with art historians and conservators.

5. Archaeometric and archaeological studies

The term “archaeometry” describes investigations into dating or into cultural relationships, technology transfers, and trade routes that are supported by the precise characterisation of archaeological material. This primarily involves highly delicate analysis techniques that determine, with great precision, which trace elements or isotopes can be found in the archaeological materials. These studies are typically supported by complex databases and require complicated evaluation methods, including statistical evaluation. In all these endeavours, close collaboration with archaeologists and conservators is extraordinarily important.

1. Services for the SMB

In principle, the RF takes on all minor analysis assignments and assignments pertaining to preventive conservation from the other SMB collections at a rate of around 20% of the total workload, so long as they are feasible from a technical and personnel perspective. For more comprehensive inquiries from the collections, the assignments are structured within the framework of the annual work schedule and carried out according to available resources. Half of the RF’s work volume is dedicated to these so-called “internal SMB projects”. Both the ongoing and internal SMB assignments involve all the subject areas of the RF.

2. Research

The RF devotes one-third of its work volume to the development, conception and realisation of research projects. The research topics, like the assignments, encompass all five of the laboratory’s subject areas. Depending on available capacity, different research facilities can differ in the amount of work taken on.

3. Documentation, databases and digitalisation

To ensure the longevity of our services and research, the RF strives to document all analysis results in the most comprehensive, up-to-date and reproducible form possible. A well-designed policy for internally documenting reports, as well as the creation of specialised databases (e.g., spectral databases) for specific materials and object groups, facilitates this aim. As far as possible, this data is stored and managed digitally.

4. Communication and networking

In close cooperation with the other institutions of the SMB and SPK, we are working to develop the instruments needed to exchange and distribute knowledge—instruments like databases or web-enabled interfaces. This enables us to make the incomparable store of knowledge acquired over the years by the RF accessible to an interested public of specialists. National and international publications also serve to communicate the RF’s achievements and knowledge. A website that we update on a regular basis furthers this agenda, as does a magazine published annually by the RF, Berliner Beiträge zur Archäometrie, Kunsttechnologie und Konservierungswissenschaft. In this magazine, specialists can publish their articles in German or English. The RF is also involved in organising workshops and conferences, and holds public seminars on a regular basis.

The importance of long-term and internationally networked research projects has become incontrovertible. The RF has made extra efforts over the past 20 years to forge the necessary ties to major developments in the European research landscape, particularly when it comes to coordination with other museum institutions and university-like research institutions.

Since 2015, the RF has strengthened its international network and ensured that knowledge is transferred more effectively through collaborations like the recently established Archäometrie-Netzwerk Berlin-Brandenburg of the Berliner Antike Kolleg, the Forschungsallianz Kulturerbe, and the Europäische Infrastruktur IPERION-CH (2015-19), which the RF has joined alongside 27 other partners.

5. Education and teaching

Beyond the ties that RF scholars have to various university programs, for many years another important element of successful research has been the students, interns, young scholars, post-docs, and conservators conducting their master’s and doctoral work at the RF. In the years to come, the RF is making every effort to affiliate with a master’s or PhD degree program in the Berlin area. We have made the first steps in that direction through the Berliner Antike Kolleg.