It’s a real pleasure to welcome Dr. Aaron Shugar, our new Bader Chair in Art Conservation (Analytical Imaging). With his wealth of experience and knowledge, he will be a wonderful addition to the program, department and Queen’s community. Conservation science student Katelin Hallchurch interviewed Aaron in the spring of 2023, just before joining Queen’s.
Katelin Hallchurch: Tell me about your career path and what drew you to conservation science in particular.
Aaron Shugar: I had a unique and very lucky career path. I started my undergraduate degree in honours business administration at Wilfrid Laurier University. Within the first year, I realized that I did not want to follow that path, but one of my favourite courses while at Laurier was anthropology; I transferred to York University for a double major in law and society and anthropology, focusing on Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka for my thesis. From there I got into archaeology. I was very interested in it and ended up working in Israel for several years as a site archaeologist for Jerusalem University and the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
Then I started looking at what I'd be interested in doing for graduate work: I had studied anthropology, I had excavated in several archaeological sites, I saw what happened to a lot of the materials that were collected, but I didn't know what happened to them after that. That's what led me to go into a program at Sheffield University for my master's in archaeological science, where I investigated Byzantine opaque red glass Tesserae from Beit Shean in Israel for my M.Sc. During that time, I took a trip to London where I met Dr. John Merkel, who offered me a PhD in archaeometallurgy where I focused on the earliest metal production in the Chalcolithic period in Israel. The same day I did my Ph.D. Viva, I started a Postdoc looking at the manufacturing of Ancient Egyptian glass with Professor Thilo Rheren. While I was working on my Postdoc, Professor Mike Notis asked if I would join him to co-run an archaeometallurgical lab at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. Later, Professor Pam Vandiver, the interim director of the Smithsonian SCMRE, offered me a Research Fellowship. I spent my time working with all the Smithsonian museums to try to coordinate analytical work. I spent a lot of time working with NMAI on heavy metal pesticide identification, which may have been my first formal foray into working with conservators outside of my interactions with them during my Ph.D. The job at Buffalo then came up and I moved there in 2006 to start teaching in the master's program. I've been in Buffalo since then until the exciting chance to come to Queen's.
Katelin Hallchurch: That's a lot of experience before you ended up working in Buffalo and then coming to Queen’s.
Aaron Shugar: Yeah. The range of materials and my experience varied. I worked with different analytical instruments and people in the field. My network is pretty large, both across conservation and archaeology. I've worked on materials from Canada, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, China, Japan, and all across Europe. I have excavated in Honduras and Belize, and I still do archaeological science research there.
Katelin Hallchurch: What was your most exciting project then, internationally?
Aaron Shugar: Almost everything I work on I find extremely interesting. One of my most recent publications is in a book on Meissen ceramics. I have two co-authored chapters on identifying different glaze enamels that can be used for dating the pieces. I also built a calibration to measure the composition of the porcelain bodies, which is datable based on changes in the sources of materials. We were able to work on a vast private collection and compare it to museum pieces while reviewing extensive original documentation from Germany.
Katelin Hallchurch: Did you use any machine learning for the calibration?
Aaron Shugar: Not for this project. We've talked about the potential of expanding that study and attempting to develop some machine learning algorithms, but it can be quite difficult to apply as it relies on the consistency of reference samples with the unknown. Since these glazed figures have extensive curvature, it is not always possible to properly align the XRF head to the region of interest, limiting the uniformity of the readings as required for machine learning.
The paper on wood identification using machine learning was exceptionally interesting and super exciting. When Dr. Lee Drake and I were first talking about applying machine learning, we were making calibrations for the XRF to measure copper alloys. We achieved remarkable results using machine learning, and it made us think about what else we could try it with. Lee had done a test at his house on two different wooden floor samples. I said, hey, let's do this a little bit differently: I had access to a collection of wood artifacts, and we analyzed them extensively and were amazed at how strong that calibration was to identify different wood species. That was a pilot project that still needs to be developed but I've reached out to a couple of places that have vouchered collections of wood to see if we can expand the study.
I'm going to give you one more example because now we're talking, and you’ve got me excited about this work.
Dr. Rebecca Ploeger (Graduate of Queen’s 2003) and I have done quite a lot of work on Indian yellow, a pigment which was originally manufactured from the urine of cows fed exclusively mango. We travelled to Kew Gardens in London and collected samples from the original collections made in India. While in London, we also visited L. Cornelissen & Son, colourmen who had a whole jar of original Indian yellow. We were exploring how it was made, and how to identify it in artists' work. We also worked closely with the chemistry department at Buffalo State to synthetically reproduce it, which is quite difficult. There's still more work to be done on this collection. When we presented it, we had other researchers around the world interested in interacting with us on doing more.
Katelin Hallchurch: Well, the next question was about upcoming projects or current projects that you were working on. I take it the Indian yellow is something that you're still working on?
Aaron Shugar: We put it on the back burner for now because other things keep coming up. One of the major projects now is working with Drs. Alison Murray and Rebecca Ploeger, along with Kyna Biggs on “Conservation Science Education Online” or CSEO. We find it to be an extremely important aspect to advance science education in the field of Cultural Heritage studies. We are looking to develop better ways to communicate complex scientific topics and try to make them more meaningful. I've found that conservation students learn best by creating direct links between the theoretical concepts and the materials they're used to working with. If you can create that connection, it makes it much easier to learn. Building this type of resource for educators to develop their curricula is a huge benefit to the field.
There are also so many other projects I am involved in. A big one is an international project working with colleagues at the University of Toronto, the AGO and the Getty on the technical characterization of Bernini bronzes. We have visited several museums worldwide to study Bernini bronzes and recently received funding to visit the Vatican.
"I'm thrilled to be coming to Queen’s. I found it such an honour to even be considered for this position. The Bader name is renowned at Queen’s, and the family has been so gracious and generous in donating towards a wide variety of different causes. One of which happens to be very close to my heart: the arts, and conservation in particular."
Katelin Hallchurch: I heard that you will be designing some courses at Queen’s. I know that it's not coming up next year, do you have a general idea of what these courses will be like?
Aaron Shugar: The Bader Chair in Analytical Imaging offers the opportunity to develop new courses for the Art Conservation department. At least one upper-level course will focus on analytical imaging in art conservation. There are so many instruments that can provide datacubes from which images can be extracted, including the elemental map images one can get from the scanning XRF.
My philosophy would be to think about the tools that are most popular in the field today, and what technology is upcoming. This ranges from standoff chemical imaging to elemental imaging, and moving into developing new methods for taking cross sections or samples for analysis. Reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS) is an area I would like to develop using various hyperspectral imaging systems. I am hoping to link that with XRF mapping and delve deeper with SEM imaging. I hope to talk about how these techniques are related to one another, how they work and can best be used in the field by analyzing assigned student treatments for demonstrations, with the intent to build student skill sets and develop their ability to critically assess scientific analyses.
I'm really eager to try to develop this new stream of analytical imaging in conservation; I'm not trying to replace multimodal imaging (e.g., photography, UV or IRR), as that's already done exceptionally well and clearly understood by conservators. I want to add something new, so that's why I'm looking at hyperspectral imaging and advancing the M6 XRF scanner. It's the only one in Canada so that's a big boon for Queen’s to have it.
Katelin Hallchurch: Broadening the question, is there anything in particular you were looking forward to doing here at Queens?
Aaron Shugar: I'm really looking forward to working at a larger institution than where I am currently, which will give me the ability to reach out and connect with more people in different departments. I'm really hoping to create good relationships with the Agnes. I think there's so much cross-collaboration that can be done and I'm really hoping to integrate a lot of conservation and conservation science into the museum environment and museum displays so that our field is seen by more people who don't really know the story behind the beautiful art they are seeing. A colleague of mine, Dr. Greg Smith, who's at the Newfields in Indianapolis, just did a ‘Night at the Museum”, which focused on the scientific analysis of art at the museum. I would love to be able to do something like that with the Agnes, exposing more people to our field to learn about who we are.
Public outreach is one of the things we work on a lot in our field and we're actually pretty good at it. I think that if you include conservation and conservation science in exhibits people will be drawn into the museum. For example, our use of x-radiography would draw in specialists in other fields (i.e., radiologists) who might find this use of a familiar technology fascinating. You can speak to people at various levels when you have these exhibits and incorporate science, drawing a whole new range of people in to enjoy art. I'd like that to happen. I've always envisioned that for any museum I've ever been at.
The other thing that I'm very excited about is to have students dedicated to conservation science. I did not have that in Buffalo as they don’t have a dedicated conservation science stream. Although I've worked with every single student on individual science projects and the various analysis of their treatments, I have been unable to investigate the material with them as much as we'd like. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to dive into research, both for the Master’s program and in the future with both Doctoral students and Postdoctoral researchers.
Katelin Hallchurch: Yes, I heard that they're trying to build a Ph.D. program here as well. Will you be supervising the Ph.D. students when that gets up and going?
Aaron Shugar: Yeah. I will definitely be supervising PhD students, so there's always an opportunity for students to return to Queen’s to do a Ph.D. or even Postdoctoral research. I'm involved in trying to find funding for all of that in the future, so for the first year I'll probably be spending a lot of time writing grants and learning how all of you are learning. That's very important to me, to know how things are taught at Queen’s and see how I can best fit into it without creating chaos.
Katelin Hallchurch: So, you will be sitting in classes with us then?
Aaron Shugar: Yes, I think I will. I'm going to try to sit in on as many classes as I can, and I might interrupt with comments occasionally if I’m allowed to. We will see how it goes.
Katelin Hallchurch: You speak quite a bit about your experience with archaeology and you briefly mentioned your experience with paper and paintings. Do you have any other examples of your work related to the other two streams?
Aaron Shugar: We have a similar setup at Buffalo. We have specialties in paintings, paper, and objects. I work extensively with all the students, and we have done some amazing things. Every year here I assign students a mini science project and some students choose to look at paper. For example, one student was intrigued by the use of gelatin as a protective coating on iron gall ink to reduce or inhibit corrosion from iron gall ink corrosion. Another student was interested in investigating the potential for using ammonia to reduce the brittleness of paper. I am also involved with larger-scale identification issues, such as fibre identification, the identification of inks and pigments, and some aspects of deterioration of the paper through metallic degradation.
In objects, it’s vast. I do a lot of analysis with students of whatever materials happen to be in their treatments. You name it, we’ve come across it. We've looked at muskets, various painted surfaces and coatings, different types of swords, plastic materials, different glass artifacts, wood identification via microscopy, various types of ceramics from archaeological to porcelain, and with all of those, we have explored their degradation mechanisms. With paintings, in the last few years, I've had fun focusing on a lot of the issues associated with degradation. For example, saponification (which several students have been working on in Queen’s) or natural changes in colour through photodegradation.
I do spend a lot of time focusing on the proper use and interpretation of XRF analysis for all these different materials. I aid students by helping them design how they're going to do their analyses and how to best interpret the results they have. The work is expansive and it's fun. I keep saying to the students, “you're never going to stop learning.” That's the whole point of our field. I never stopped learning and every time I work with them I'm learning something new. I love it and I appreciate it. I'm looking forward to continuing that at Queen’s as well, and because it's going to be a new environment, there'll be new things to learn, which is exciting.
"I realize there's a strong desire to know everything about the object you're working on, and there's value in delving into projects that way. But there's also a value in having your hands in as many places as possible."
Katelin Hallchurch: Do you have any other advice for any incoming students, current students, or recent graduates then?
Aaron Shugar: For incoming students, my advice is to be as curious as possible. Ask questions about things, because that's how you learn the best. If you accept an answer outright, a treatment might proceed perfectly fine, but think about how much more you can learn about potential alternative treatments if you ask more questions. There may not be better answers, but at least you put the effort forth into being curious about what you're doing. Don't limit yourself.
For current students: I realize there's a strong desire to know everything about the object you're working on, and there's value in delving into projects that way. But there's also a value in having your hands in as many places as possible. Look to work on more than one type of material or period of artifact. If you're going into objects, then you could think of working on artifacts of glass, metal, and ceramics, to gain more experience. In paintings, you can do something similar by looking at as many different issues as you can, from various media, to tear repair, to edge lining, to fire-damaged painted surfaces. Same thing in paper: you can choose different geographic types of paper, or different printing techniques, from etchings to woodblock prints. Expose yourself to issues related to photographs and book bindings. Just be open to having more experiences and staying curious. You might be surprised at how some of these "different" things can have similarities.
For graduates, as I said before, you never stop learning in this field. Embrace the fact that there's always something for you to learn, and a new way to grow. You have the most amazing colleagues, and the conservation community is wonderful, sharing, and encouraging. Everyone wants to help everyone, so do not be afraid to reach out for help and offer it where and when you can. You have likely created great relationships with your classmates. Through ANAGPIC, you have the opportunity to meet your colleagues worldwide, or at least North America-wide right now. Take advantage of that. You can reach out to them, and I am sure they'd be happy to talk with you. Lastly, please share your knowledge and skill with future conservators looking to get pre-program experience.
Katelin Hallchurch: That was my last official question. Is there anything else that you would like to touch on? This newsletter is basically your introduction to the Queen's community. Was there anything else you'd like to say? …What else do you like to do? Tell us something fun about yourself.
Aaron Shugar: I used to do a lot of rock climbing, but I don't anymore since I've had kids. But, I would like to teach them. I like bike riding and camping, so Kingston has a lot to offer on both those fronts. I do spend a lot of time with my family, and I am looking forward to exploring the Kingston area with them. I have my own forge and anvil, but I don't use it as much as I want to. It would be nice to invite students over so they could try their hand at hitting and shaping metal.
I'm thrilled to be coming to Queen’s. I found it such an honour to even be considered for this position. The Bader name is renowned at Queen’s, and the family has been so gracious and generous in donating towards a wide variety of different causes. One of which happens to be very close to my heart: the arts, and conservation in particular. The fact that they're able to see the value in the scientific analysis of art and that they have faith in the Art Conservation department speaks volumes. It’s a little bit of a daunting task, but I'm eager to try to live up to the name. I'm looking forward to working with all the students. You have a great faculty here and it is a privilege to be able to work with all of them as well. They're wonderful.
For more interviews like this, check out our Art Conservation interview series.