This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.
Many Harvard students have interests that bridge the seemingly disparate fields of art and science. Many fewer combine them in a joint concentration. Among those, Maille Radford ’17 has accomplished a first in Harvard history: earning joint degrees in chemistry and history of art and architecture.
Radford already has experience in art conservation, a field that unites her two disciplines. In a senior-year internship in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums, she sampled and analyzed objects made from a variety of materials. Radford applied what she learned to her thesis on the evolution, use, reception, and degradation of plastics in modern art.
“Being able to work in conservation for the first time, I’ve realized how my studies over the past four years may apply to studying art and artists’ materials,” Radford said. “It’s an incredible opportunity and has made me look at artwork differently.”
Radford grew up in Dallas and when she and her sister were young, they visited museums every Friday. In high school, she interned at the Kimbell Art Museum in nearby Fort Worth. Her curiosity about conservation science was further piqued by a family friend who worked as a paper conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
At Harvard, Radford declared a chemistry concentration — but her love for art didn’t fade. So she approached Gregory Tucci, director of undergraduate studies in chemistry and senior lecturer on chemistry and chemical biology, to ask if she could pursue a joint concentration.
“This had never been done before, so at first I was thinking the answer was going to be, ‘No way,’” recalled Tucci. “But by the end of our conversation, it was clear that she was a very special person and that, actually, she must do this.”
Doing this was not easy. Radford had to build her own academic plan of study in order to prove she could graduate in four years. And given the sheer number of courses required by each discipline, she had little time to study subjects beyond her fields. She said she would anyway have used the time to take history of art and architecture classes.
That Radford earned her joint degree on time was “not surprising” to Tucci. “Maille’s someone who gets everything done, and she gets it done to the absolute highest standards,” he said.
Benjamin Buchloh, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Modern Art and Radford’s history of art and architecture adviser, echoed Tucci. “Maille was more than capable and qualified to do this,” he said, adding that Radford’s interdisciplinary thesis, which incorporated analysis of Richard Hamilton’s use of plastic in “The Solomon R. Guggenheim” reliefs (1965–66), was “quite outstanding.”
The pinnacle of Radford’s unique academic itinerary was her Straus Center internship. Her joint concentration required that the two disciplines be addressed in a single thesis; one place where she could conduct research to this end was right under her nose. The Straus Center was founded to encourage the intersection of conservation, conservation science, and curatorial practice.
“There’s an artificial divide between the humanities and the sciences,” said Narayan Khandekar, the Straus Center’s director. “But it’s not often you find people who are willing to take risks to bridge that divide. I’m really happy Maille was able to do it.”
The Straus Center rarely accepts undergraduate interns because of the rigorous advanced-level work required in conservation labs. But Khandekar said he could tell Radford possessed the knowledge and skills, along with the enthusiasm.
She worked closely with Georgina Rayner, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Conservation Science, to contribute to a comprehensive survey of the plastics collection at the Harvard Art Museums. Radford said it was exhilarating — if also intimidating — to observe the extraction of samples from works she had studied in class, such as Russian sculptor Naum Gabo’s “Construction in Space with Balance on Two Points” (circa 1925–26) and to work directly with other objects such as Jim Dine’s prints portfolio “A Tool Box” (1966). With Rayner’s oversight, Radford analyzed these objects using specialized equipment, such as the FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectrometer).
Katherine Eremin, the Straus Center’s Patricia Cornwell Senior Conservation Scientist, assisted Radford with the analysis and identification of pigments in Islamic manuscripts from the collection of Villa I Tatti, home to the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, in Florence, Italy. The works are part of the exhibition “A New Light on Bernard Berenson: Persian Paintings from Villa I Tatti” (May 20–Aug. 13).
“You learn fine-motor skills and analytical techniques in the lab, but actually applying them to the artworks is very different,” Radford said.
Radford spent two days a week in the Straus Center as an intern, but her involvement with the Harvard Art Museums goes back to her first days on campus. As a member of its Student Board since spring 2014, Radford helped connect the campus community and her fellow Dunster House residents with the museums. The group organized House Teas, Student Late Nights, and other popular events held in the museums.
“They say it’s the students’ museum, and it’s really felt that way, based on all the chances the Student Board has had to meet with the director, curatorial staff, and others who work here,” Radford said. “It was meaningful to see how much the student perspective is valued.”
Graduation means leaving behind Harvard’s artworks and laboratories, but not the world of museums. With a prestigious Marshall Scholarship, Radford will pursue graduate degrees in curatorial studies and art history, hoping to determine whether she’ll pursue a career as a curator, a conservation scientist, or something in between.
“I’m so appreciative that I have this background,” Radford said, “because it has helped me understand the potential of analyzing artwork.”