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Research at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute is, by its very nature, interdisciplinary. The research staff represent a wide range of disciplines, and the interaction among them achieves a fuller understanding of complex objects, conditions, and contexts. Specialists from different fields, such as biology, chemistry, engineering, conservation, and archaeology share specialized equipment and may collaborate to solve specific problems. Projects examine the preservation-related properties of materials and the processes and parameters of their deterioration, extract historical information from the technical record of artifacts, and develop and improve conservation treatment technology.
Preservation research in MCI strives to enlarge understanding of how materials and composite objects deteriorate. This research generates both data and models used to formulate conditions for storage, display, and other uses that will minimize deterioration. MCI projects also develop and test treatment technologies for stabilizing deteriorating collection materials. All these studies require analyses and characterizations of object materials and deterioration products and examination of the way external and internal factors, such as environmental conditions or chemical composition and physical structure, affect the nature and rate of these alteration mechanisms.
Collections-based research draws on the vast reservoir of the scientific information contained in the natural and cultural materials curated in the Smithsonian and other institutions. Research using these collections develops, adapts, and applies methods of analysis methods for the characterization of materials to expand understanding of the biological, technical, economic, social, or political aspects of past lifeways. Depending upon the specific questions asked, the scale of the investigations varies widely. Collaborations with non-MCI scholars are a critical component for many projects, permitting not only the increased benefit of greater intellectual diversity but also wider access to collections and highly specialized instrumentation.
Although their objectives differ, MCI's research programs all involve the analysis and characterization of cultural and natural collections materials and the environments in which they are curated. Specific projects are initiated by MCI staff and by Smithsonian bureaus and research units. Projects may also be undertaken in response to suggestions made from the national and international professional community.