Chemistry and classical music might seem like strange bedfellows, but they are not. For the past couple of years, the music of Germany's great composers, such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach, has kept a few chemists very busy.
When it comes to preserving original manuscripts, chemistry can be the enemy of music. Documents produced prior to the invention of acid-free paper eventually dissolve, and the iron gall ink once used to notate musical scores fades with time. The latter problem is commonly known as Tintenfraß (ink corrosion) in German. But chemistry can also be a preservationist's strongest ally. "Chemical processes on a molecular level are important in these cases and the key to conservation," says Nils Brübach, who lectures at the Archives School in Marburg.
Cost may also be a factor in preserving the estate of a prolific composer. The Beethoven-Haus in Bonn has a collection of more than 1000 authentic handwritings by the artist. The archive also holds paintings of Beethoven, as well as all but two of the musical instruments he owned. Prussian Cultural Heritage, a foundation in Berlin, holds about 400 musical estates in its trust, among them works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Carl Maria von Weber. Bach's vast estate, for example, is so expensive to maintain that its conservation has actually become a political issue that led to conflicts among researchers and politicians.
There are several ways scientists can get involved in the conservation of library and archival materials. Extensive research is currently undertaken at specialized laboratories at the State Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart and the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne to develop or improve conservation techniques. This is mostly done in cooperation with a number of university institutes in Germany and conservation science laboratories in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Additionally, a number of chemistry departments at German universities contribute to certain research areas. The programs in conservation and restoration offered in Stuttgart, Cologne, and at the University of Applied Sciences in Hildesheim lead to the conservator's degree. These programs are very time-intensive: They require pre-enrollment internships of 2 years or more. Restoration and all the necessary techniques cannot be learned theoretically.
The job market for aspiring conservators is a mixed bag: "Our graduates have excellent career chances and usually find a job in their profession," Gerhard Banik, a professor and scientist at the Stuttgart Academy, reports. "In principle, there's a high demand for paper conservators, but the public sector isn't able to fund all necessary positions," he tells Next Wave. And if a job is available, the salary may not be very generous. "They are sometimes not really competitive," says Andrea Patakia, a paper conservator responsible for training in paper and book conservation at the academy.
There are other opportunities to end up in the practical world of art conservation. Some universities, such as the Archives School in Marburg, offer postgraduate programs to become a professional archivist. This program requires an academic (diploma or master's) degree in order to enroll. People with a background in science are welcomed. "Especially since conservation issues are becoming more and more important for archivists, the program seems to draw interest among scientists," says Brübach, "And the employment rate of our graduates is very close to 100%."
Scientists who are interested in conservation may want to start looking to the distant future. The decay of historic documents cannot be stopped forever, so one of the greatest challenges will be the digitalization of the present stock. "A major quality an archivist has to develop is to provide general access to the documents he or she is responsible for. This can only be achieved via Internet portals or digital libraries," says Brübach. In other words, the next great challenge for archivists is still to come.