Eric Breitung | Chemist Profiles
Eric Breitung helps art conservators preserve the priceless works of art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. He studies the ways that various art materials age and degrade, and he consults with the museum's building engineers to produce an environment that helps prevent damage to everything from modern artwork made from polymers to ancient pieces made from metal. His work requires him to use a variety of instruments to perform organic analysis, but he also gives tours to classes and other members of the public. He enjoys the collegial, collaborative environment, working with capable, motivated colleagues.
How did you find your first chemistry-related job after you graduated?
I got my first chemistry job at General Electric's R&D center through an on-campus recruiter, and I worked there for nine years after graduate school. I did research and development of thin films and coatings, which is indirectly related to what I do now. I hadn't considered going into art, but I saw a job posting in 2007, when I was looking to relocate to New York City. I didn't have the background to get into the art museum field right away, so I took a fellowship to get that experience. Afterward, I worked full-time at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, for about five years before receiving my current job at the Met. Doing fellowships is very common, since there are few job openings in this field.
What's the best career advice you've received?
When my physics professor said, "Go into chemistry, not physics" it got me into an area that was a much better fit to my interests.
What are your primary responsibilities in your current position?
I work on the science that helps to preserve art. I determine how artists' materials degrade, with a focus on effects due to atmospheric and physical environment. The materials I work on include nearly all modern and historic materials, from polymers to ancient metals. I consult with conservators and forensics experts, but my work is more about the analysis methods than the conservation work itself. I help conservators understand what they have, in terms of layer structures, for example, and how the layers are made. Most of my work involves organic analysis.
Approximately how many hours per week do you generally spend on the following tasks?
- Attending meetings: 6-10
- Managing other people: 1-5
- Planning experiments: 11-15
- Running experiments: 11-15
- Analyzing data: 16-20
- Writing reports: 11-15
- Consulting with colleagues: 6-10
What other activities are part of a typical day?
- Consulting with professionals, from manufacturers to research scientists at academic institutions, to understand technical aspects of materials or their production
- Discussing degradation issues with art conservators
- Discussing building design issues with curators and building engineers
- Running materials analysis (GC/MS, Ion Chromatography, GPC, optical microscopy, infrared analysis, etc.) to identify chemical or physical properties of either artist materials or storage and building materials, as well as their effect on artist materials
- Grant writing
- Report writing
- Literature searching and reading
- Equipment maintenance
- Equipment construction or redesign/building
- Significant collaboration building
Typically, how many days each month do you spend away from your workplace on travel?
I travel for collaborations, or to run tests using specialized equipment, like a synchrotron source. I also go to conferences, mostly on conservation and analytical symposia. It averages out to about one to five days a month away from the museum. I go to more conferences now than I did at GE, since less of my work is proprietary. The focus here is more on sharing information.
What apps/software/instrumentation/tools can't you live without?
GC/MS, Microsoft Office, Optical Microscopy, Infrared Spectroscopy.
What is your work environment like?
I have an office and dedicated lab, but I also have access to shared labs and equipment. Typical equipment in this field includes GC/MS, XRF, IR, XRD, Raman, microscopy (SEM and optical), UV-Vis, HPLC or LCMS, and accelerated aging chambers. Sometimes we work with GPC, nano-indentation, DSC, and TGA. Most of my group works together in the basement of the museum, which provides a more stable base for the instruments. Some scientists are scattered throughout the museum, close to the storage or conservation areas for the material types they’ve specialized on (textiles, photographs, etc.).
What is your workplace like? Is overtime typically required?
My current job is similar to my previous job with General Electric, in that I work with highly capable, motivated people. However, GE was more profit-driven, which isn't the case with an art museum.
This is a collegial, collaborative environment with multiple single-area specialists (analysts for dyes, pigments, stone and metal, glass, bio-organics, modern plastics, etc.). The environment is intense, with motivated and intelligent co-workers across the museum. It is also non-competitive. People are allowed to have some ego and personality.
Sometimes, other scientists come to our lab to see what we are working on. We also give tours to classes and other groups. There are about 10–12 people in our department, and we are all qualified to give tours.
I’m in a salaried position, which means there no such thing as paid overtime. It's more about getting done what you've set out to do. I generally put in about ten hours a day, but it varies. There is less of a sense of urgency than when I was working in industry. We tend to work long hours because we are interested in the work.
What do you like most about your job?
I like the ability to work with creative, thoughtful people, where my hallways are filled with beautiful objects. I also like the freedom to explore solutions to technical problems applied to art through collaborations with both academia and industry.
What personal talent or trait makes you a great fit for your job?
My industrial experience at GE prepared me well on how to organize and lead projects while working collaboratively with others. I have a "jack of all trades" background, which is an asset in a field with a wide range of unresolved technical issues. I know how to run many instruments on a general level, rather than being an expert in a narrowly focused area. I use techniques as I need them.
What advice would you give students who are interested in following in your footsteps?
Find a lab in a museum early on in your academic career and volunteer there. If the museum in your area does not have a science lab (most don't), find a scientist or other professional expert (in chemistry, physics, statistics, math, computer science, etc.) on campus who might be interested in collaborating with your local museum's conservation department or collections care manager. Essentially, get involved. Apply for internships at cultural heritage institutions (libraries, museums, archives). Archives and libraries also employ conservation scientists and some of the major institutions have paid summer internships.
Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career?
My move to New York City was motivated by personal reasons — I wanted to live and work in New York City. The job at the Met helped me do that. Many jobs with chemical companies are in port cities, so you have to take location into account when you decide on a career path.
You will likely end up in a larger city if you choose to work with an art museum, and there are not many jobs in this field. Be sure to get a solid science background so that you have options in case you are not able to find a job in a museum. I wouldn't recommend going into a conservation science program at school, unless you also obtain a degree in hard science (physics, chemistry, materials science, biology, etc.).
You'll likely need a Ph.D. to get a job in a museum, and you'll certainly need experience in a museum (internship, fellowship, volunteer) before you'll get that job. Chemistry professors can incorporate art conservation and related topics into their coursework, so you may be able to get involved at your local university. Spending time in a museum, archive, or library handling and working with objects is equally important.
Be sure to network and show excitement for this field if you want to get into it. As with most jobs, you have to know how to work with people, as a collaborator, interacting with the public, and as an employee to the administration. I deal with art conservators, building engineers, and a lot of nonscientists. At GE, you also had to work well with others, but it was primarily with people inside the company.
I like the ability to work with creative, thoughtful people, where my hallways are filled with beautiful objects. I also like the freedom to explore solutions to technical problems applied to art through collaborations with both academia and industry."