Materials tour created by MSE students now running at UMMA

A GSC outreach team led by Brian Iezzi and Paul Chao researched and created a self-guided materials tour that explains the science behind select art objects.
Materials tour created by MSE students now running at UMMA

What does a precious art object like a Celadon gourd-shaped ewer from the Goryeo Dynasty have to do with MSE?

The answer, as a new Materials Tour at UMMA developed by MSE graduate students will tell you: Way more than you think.

This past spring, the U-M Museum of Art (UMMA) contacted the GSC outreach team about developing a self-guided materials tour that lets a person walk through the museum with the insights and knowledge of an engineer, discovering the science behind the objects.

One of the graduate researchers behind the project, Brian Iezzi, explained, “I love nerding out at kids’ museums, and I think this is kind of a bridge to that — a taste of science you normally wouldn’t get during a walk-through at an art museum.”

The project began in earnest in May, when Iezzi and other members of the outreach team toured the museum to pick out the art objects they thought would have an interesting materials science story behind them to explore. A team of eight students then spent the summer drafting webpages with graphics and figures to explain the science connected to the art for the selected pieces. 

“I was fascinated to learn about the techniques these artists used to create their art pieces,” Paul Chao, an MSE Ph.D. candidate, commented. “Exploring these 'rabbit holes' with other students made for a unique summer.”

While most art museums usually just provide a label that explains the medium of each work of art, the materials tour at UMMA utilizes QR codes, which instantly link to more in-depth information about the materials used in creating the object, including facts about its chemical compounds and how artists and other people most likely worked with that material in the same time period.

“What the object is made out of is really an important part of the piece, an inherent part of the art,” Iezzi remarked. “This is a cool way to explain much more about a work by exploring the medium in more depth.”

According to Iezzi and Chao, giving visitors a deeper understanding of the objects than their first impressions of the art might do on their own has been a rewarding part of the project.

“I hope anyone who interacts with this will be inspired, not only by the intersection of disciplines, but by how intertwined these fields are,” Chao commented. “That we are all capable, in some way or form, of being a little bit of an artist or a little bit of a scientist/engineer.”

In addition to Iezzi and Chao, project team members include MSE graduate students Kyle Bushick, Joshua Cooper, Duncan Greeley, Geordie Lindemann, Leah Marks, and Alex Moy, and instructional labs supervisor Tim Chambers.

The Materials Tour at UMMA is on view at UMMA through Summer 2022. The tour is meant to be experienced in person, but if you can't make it to the museum, you can view a digital version here.