When Art Meets Science

Art history alumna Kim Selvaggi shares how her Academy experience is helping her in the scientific world of archaeological conservation


School of Art History alumna Kim Selvaggi pictured near the London Tower Bridge in London, England. Photo courtesy of Kim Selvaggi.

Many students attend the Academy of Art University because they want to create art, but those enrolled in the School of Art History (AHS) choose to study art within its cultural context. Art history students learn how to analyze and become critics of historical pieces of work from all over the globe, with an emphasis on gaining a deep knowledge of what these relics mean within a cultural and global timeline.

Most AHS students move on to become researchers and curators in galleries or museums, but recent alumna Kim Selvaggi took her studies in a more scientifically-based direction. Shortly after graduation, she was accepted into the University of College London’s Master of Science in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums in England, where she pursued art preservation.

The program, however, is under the university’s Institute of Archaeology and Selvaggi wound up handling mainly ancient archeological objects as opposed to paintings. Despite that slight differential, Selvaggi said her art history background meshed well with the conservation academics. Thanks to the Academy coursework (including a three-week summer study abroad seminar in Italy), learning about different cultures wasn’t new to her.

“All the classes [at the Academy] were so diverse for world history and world culture of art that it was able to give me a good [beginner] view of each culture,” she explained. “Often [in conservation], you were given any object to analyze and conserve. If I didn’t have a little bit of introduction to these cultures [from the Academy], I would have been completely lost.” 

According to the UCL Conservation website, the MSc conservation program entails one year on “developing practical experience under specialist guidance in the conservation laboratories,” which is then followed with a 10-month assessed conservation internship in a museum. 

That first year in the classroom covers the principles of conservation, which includes two main core courses. One focuses on the actual physical care and conservation, while the other concerns itself with topics on use of objects and contextual significance, in addition to conservation ethics, management and preventative.


Pictured: A finished photo of the rehousing project of the African basketry Kim Selvaggi worked on with her classmates. Each basket has its place within the drawer and a support system (the white material around/in the baskets) to keep them from collapsing. Photo courtesy of Kim Selvaggi.

Jumping from art studies to a science, however, is no easy feat. Selvaggi said it was a whole process to learn: Learning different materials; its chemical composition; how it interacts with other elements and its degradation properties; chemicals conservers use and how it reacts with degradation and time. 

She hadn’t taken chemistry since high school, so she spent a lot of time in the school’s library trying to re-familiarize herself with the concepts. 

“I actually went to the bookstore and a bought a chemistry workbook for English standardized testing so I could do chemistry problems in my spare time,” she remembers. “I saw a lot of London, I saw a lot of places, but I didn’t really leave the library Monday through Thursday.” 

Trading seats from the library to the lab, Selvaggi said she liked writing condition reports on the archaeological objects. After visually analyzing the object (Selvaggi said you don’t want to touch the object until you’ve made a decision on how to proceed), she records the damage, cultural significance, the item’s value and next steps for keeping it intact. It’s a balancing act between keeping the piece whole, but also to not jeopardize the item’s inherent meaning to its people and culture.

“Sometimes, you’re left with not a lot to work with, but I found that if I can [at] least find something, then it will be there for future generations to build from,” she said. “What’s cool about learning about objects is that they’re passed down through time and you’ll get all these different perspectives on it from other researchers, scientists, geologists, archaeologists and so forth. It all gathers and you can literally trace an object through its entire history. It’s amazing what an object can go through.”

These principles, in addition to being able to handle centuries-old artifacts, are key lessons Selvaggi took away from her time at UCL. But art is where her heart is and she wants to pursue a master’s degree in art conservation, specializing in wall and wood panel paintings. 

The opportunities are slim and highly competitive: Her desired program, the Master of Arts Conservation of Wall Painting at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, takes in only eight students every three years. Alternative schools would be the Studio Arts College International and Instituto del Restauro in Florence, Italy. 

Until then, Selvaggi will continue to merge her art history and conservation backgrounds in her dissertation, where she’ll discuss a comparison of wall painting conservation, with a focus on frescos. She explores how plaster and pigment deteriorate alongside each other, plus what are best practices to uphold integrity, authenticity and increase longevity for the painting. Following the completion of her dissertation, she hopes to be accepted into an internship at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles in the fall.