Secret Scientist: Lucia Burgio

Lucia Burgio: Senior objects analyst at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Like most scientists, Lucia works in a laboratory. However, Lucia’s role at the V&A bridges the divide between art and science. Her time is spent studying the materials used on works of art. Using her chemistry background, Lucia is able to analyse, for example, how and when paintings were constructed and thus learn more about the development of art throughout our history. In a collaboration with the National Gallery her work led to the discovery of an entirely unknown Chinese pigment, used on many of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s objects.

Have you always been interested in science?
Yes and no: when I was a kid I wanted to be a paediatrician, then an Egyptologist, then a Latin and ancient Greek scholar, then an astronomer, and finally I settled on chemistry.

How did you come to work at the V&A?
Serendipity, luck, and willpower, all blended together: I did a PhD which allowed me to combine my love for the classical world and my humanities background with pure science (I analysed medieval manuscripts with spectroscopic techniques). At the end of my PhD I realised I really wanted to be a scientist but work in the field of cultural heritage as well. Sending my CV to the scientific departments of the best museums in London (such as the V&A, the British Museum and the National Gallery) and the UK was only natural. I lucked out and was soon called to apply for a position in the Science Section at the V&A.

What does a typical day in your working life consist of?
There is no typical day, this is the beauty of my job. I normally work in a laboratory within the museum, and deal with the scientific analysis of museum objects, so one day I may have to analyse the alloy of an ancient metal sculpture, the next I may have to look at the ink of a manuscript of Dickens’ David Copperfield. I am also called to collaborate with other British and international institutions, to help with the analysis, dating and authentication of their objects. It’s a bit like the TV show CSI, except that I do not go to work with full make-up, high heels and designer clothes. Public transport in London is not compatible with such a glamorous attire!

What excites you the most about your job?
Physically touching history every day. Nothing beats the thrill of being asked to find out more about masterpieces, or real tangible objects which link us to our past.

Could you tell us about something cool you have been involved with recently?
I discovered a new Chinese pigment on many V&A objects, which no one had characterised before. It looks spookily like green fish roe, and it is really pretty when you look at it under a microscope! In an age when pretty much every artists’ material has already been studied thoroughly, I joined forces with the National Gallery and we pooled together our equipment and expertise in order to find out more about this mysterious green pigment.

How does your work impact on people’s daily lives?
Any conservation scientist can add to the knowledge of our cultural heritage and we can help taking care of our treasures, keeping them whole for the enjoyment of the public and preserving them for the appreciation of future generations.

This is one of a series of interviews conducted by the British Science Association for National Science & Engineering Week 2011 and published here with thanks.

The British Science Association is the UK’s nationwide, open membership organisation that exists to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering. Established in 1831, the British Science Association organises major initiatives across the UK, including National Science and Engineering Week, the annual British Science Festival, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges. The Association also organises specific activities for the science communication community in the UK through its Science in Society programme. For more information, please visit the British Science Association website.

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