Arts & Culture

Patricia Cornwell endows conservationist at Straus Center

2 min read

Harvard Art Museum announced the establishment of the Patricia Cornwell Conservation Scientist position at the museum’s Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Funded by a $1 million commitment from best-selling author Patricia Cornwell, the Cornwell Conservation Scientist will play a key role in the analytical laboratory and beyond.

“I am delighted to thank Patricia for this generous commitment and the important work it will advance at the Harvard Art Museum,” said Thomas W. Lentz, director of the Art Museum, in the Nov. 19 announcement. “Thanks to her support, our scientists will continue to develop new techniques that can advance conservation applications in museums all over the world.”

The oldest facility of its kind in the United States, the Straus Center specializes in the conservation and study of works ranging from paintings and sculpture, to historical and archaeological artifacts. Cornwell’s interest in conservation science stems from her writing, which combines forensic science with the arts, including her book “Portrait of a Serial Killer: Jack the Ripper — Case Closed.” Through her own use of forensic techniques, Cornwell makes a compelling case against the well-known British painter Walter Sickert, who she theorizes to be the real Jack the Ripper.

A longtime supporter of the Harvard Art Museum, Cornwell’s other donations include a major collection of paintings, drawings, and prints by Sickert, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Augustus Edwin John, as well as critical equipment like the Foster and Freeman VSC 5000 she donated in 2005. This sophisticated forensic device, widely used to detect forged passports and counterfeit currency, allows for new ways to examine artwork through an electromagnetic spectrum — crucial for detecting forgeries, as well as changes and damages to artwork. The device also can view previously elusive underdrawings to help uncover the artist’s original intentions and the evolution of a piece.

“I am pleased to be able to support the work of the Harvard Art Museum and the Straus Center,” said Cornwell. “Harvard is the center of groundbreaking research in many areas of study, and I am confident that the Cornwell Conservation Scientist will make strong contributions to advancing the field of conservation science.”