Tray (Batea) with Turnus Provoked into War by Aeneas, ca. 1764, José Manuel de la Cerda. Wood, painted lacquer, gold (detail). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Fund and Sansbury-Mills Fund, 2020.  The Marriage of the Virgin, ca. 1690, José Sánchez. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Maria DeWitt Jesup Fund, 2016.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it has been awarded a two-year Research and Development Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to support the biochemical analysis of chia oil found in Mexican lacquerware and paintings by New Spanish artists from the 16th to the 19th century. The study aims to create, establish, and disseminate a scientific methodology for biomolecule identification in art—using chia oil as a model—that can also be used to investigate other naturally occurring biological materials in a wide variety of heritage objects. The project is being undertaken in collaboration with the Hispanic Society Museum & Library in New York City, and Weill Cornell Medicine.

Max Hollein, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Marina Kellen French Director, stated, “The Met is committed to the study, treatment, and interpretation of all areas of its expansive collection. We’re extremely grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for supporting this important work that will meet the growing need for new scientific tools and research strategies that can help us better identify and understand works from non-European cultures.  It is an honor to have as collaborators in this important effort our esteemed colleagues at the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, Weill Cornell Medicine, and Grupo Artesanal Tecomaque.”

Julie Arslanoglu, Research Scientist in The Met’s Department of Scientific Research and Principal Investigator for the study, commented, “Plant and animal products, especially from non-European cultures, are among the most understudied materials of cultural heritage, yet they can help us accurately identify and interpret objects, reveal how they were made, and ensure their proper conservation and preservation. Because there is such a great variety of these materials, we need to develop new approaches to address this shortcoming. Chia oil holds cultural significance through its artistic use, and for the tripartite approach of this study—which relies on lipid, protein, and DNA analysis— it is the model that we have selected to demonstrate how collaborative research can produce methodologies that tell us more about how, where, and why certain works of art were made.”

Chia and its artistic uses in Mesoamerican cultures has been documented for over more than 4,500 years, but there is currently no method for identifying chia oil in art or distinguishing it from linseed or other common European drying oils. It is an ideal model for this study because The Met has access to traditionally prepared chia oil sourced from local Mexican plants as well as to New Spanish lacquerware and paintings that are known, or suspected, to contain chia oil. Furthermore, The Met has partnerships with experts who can speak to the cultural significance and historic associations of its continued use since the pre-Hispanic era leading to a better understanding the art of Mexico from the 16th to the 19th century.

NEH Grant Project Staff

At The Met, the project will be led by Julie Arslanoglu, Principal Investigator and Research Scientist in the Department of Scientific Research. José Luis Lazarte, Assistant Conservator in the Department of Paintings Conservation, will act as Co-Principal Investigator and advise on research. Dr. Ronda Kasl, Curator of Latin American Art in the American Wing, will also serve as Co-Principal Investigator. At the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, Objects Conservator Monica Katz will act as a consultant on Mexican lacquered objects. Dr. Christopher Mason of Weill Cornell Medicine will contribute to DNA laboratory research and data analysis. The project would not be possible without ARt and Cultural HEritage: Natural Organic Polymers by Mass Spectrometry (ARCHE), co-directed by The Met’s Arslanoglu and Professor Caroline Tokarski. ARCHE is a partnership between The Met and the University of Bordeaux; it was established in 2019 as an International Research Project under the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) specializing in the study of organic polymers and the chemistry of their molecular interactions using mass spectrometry. More on the partnership can be found on The Met’s website here.

The project will also include a growing number of international collaborations with museums and organizations, including the Grupo Artesanal Tecomaque in San Martín Tecorrales in the State of Guerrero, Mexico.

Grant title: “A novel tripartite approach to biomolecule analysis for the identification of unknown artistic materials applied to the use of chia oil in art from New Spain.” Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this press release do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

National Endowment for the Humanities