Chemistry Professor’s Research Strengthens Art Conservation
Dr. David McPhail, the newest professor in the chemistry department in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, is studying how ultra-slow surface processes can gradually change the appearance of museum objects over time-scales of tens, hundreds or even thousands of years.
McPhail, who is also the Distinguished Chair of Conservation Science in the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History, is an expert in the field of ion beam mass spectrometry — an analytical technique that can typify the composition of a material’s surface and tell you how that composition is changing over time as the surface interacts with the immediate atmosphere around it.
“The ultimate aim of my work is to provide conservators and curators with practical steps that they can take to arrest completely or significantly reduce the degradation so that the useful life of the museum objects can be extended for the many future generations of museum visitors,” McPhail said.
He also uses a range of complementary electron microscopy, optical microscopy and atomic force microscopy techniques to better understand physical changes in the surfaces over time such as the development of cracks and pores.
“This is an exciting new thrust for our campus and partner museums. The conservation science effort brings together UT Dallas’ strengths in science, engineering and technology and pairs them with critical needs in the arts,” said Dr. Bruce Novak, dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
“We currently have several faculty members who are working on conservation projects, and we’re looking forward to initiating a much broader agenda under Dr. McPhail’s leadership,” Novak said. “He is a tremendous catalyst for new partnerships that will involve chemists, physicists and materials scientists working closely with the arts community.”
McPhail is also working closely with the O’Donnell Institute and the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s major art museums, including the Dallas Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, in collaborative research projects.
“I am very keen indeed to reach out to all colleagues at UTD and beyond who are interested in conservation science so we can grow capacity in this area and become an international center of expertise in conservation science in the years to come. ”
“David was unique among our international applicants to this joint professorship in being truly distinguished as a research scientist as well as deeply involved in the physical or forensic study of works of art,” said Dr. Richard R. Brettell, founding director of the O’Donnell Institute and the Margaret M. McDermott Distinguished Chair of Art and Aesthetic Studies.
“He will hit the ground running and become part of UTD’s important School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics as well as the region’s distinguished group of fine arts conservators,” Brettell said. “The art and science focus of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History is splendidly embodied in our first chaired appointment.”
McPhail is working with conservators from the DMA to characterize the dyes used in Andean textiles to understand how the fabrics were made and how to best conserve them. He is also analyzing materials used by the Mexican printmaker José Posada with the Amon Carter Museum and, again with the DMA, technical studies of the working methods of Texas-based contemporary artist John Wilcox.
Previously, McPhail lectured and conducted research at Imperial College London, where he developed research collaborations with London’s major museums. He was deputy director of the Graduate School at the university from 2011 to 2015 and acted as the academic lead on a joint PhD program with the National University of Singapore from 2010 to 2015.
He has won the Imperial College Rector’s Award for teaching — one of the university’s highest faculty accolades — twice.
McPhail has a PhD in mass spectrometry from Imperial College London, a postgraduate teaching certificate from the University of London and a bachelor of science in physics from Bristol University. He is a Fellow of the U.K.’s Institute of Physics and served on its council from 2010 to 2014.
“I am delighted to have this amazing opportunity at UTD to carry out research and teaching at the interface between the arts and the sciences,” McPhail said. “I am very keen indeed to reach out to all colleagues at UTD and beyond who are interested in conservation science so we can grow capacity in this area and become an international center of expertise in conservation science in the years to come.”