NEW YORK - Tucked inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a sort of science lab, where researchers use microscopes and x-rays to get to the bottom of some of the art world’s big mysteries.
"What we're doing is in a sense forensic science: We're going into the object; we're seeing how it was put together with what materials that were available an accident of time or culture or happenstance," said Marco Leona, head of research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Leona runs what's called the Network Initiative for Conservation Science - or NICS - a program that helps museums across the city conduct scientific research into the materials used to create old works of art.
It began two years ago and has allowed a dozen institutions to tap into the Met's vast resources to analyze hundreds of paintings, manuscripts and sculptures.
"There was a great need," said Leona. "It's really like the conservation community clamoring for this type of in-depth approach."
The Met's research is not limited to its lab on Fifth Avenue. Scientists can also go directly to the museum that has called in their help, thanks to small suitcases equipped with portable gadgets that can do the necessary analysis right on the spot.
The Met's work has made a number of discoveries - including one about a 1949 work by the abstract artist Carmen Herrera, which researchers determined was created in Paris using acrylic paint at a time when such paint was thought to be unavailable.
"It's a very important finding because it's the first account of these materials in a period where they were not available in Europe," said Elena Basso, a scientist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Researchers say they often start with a hypothesis and then use a variety of techniques - including collecting and analyzing paint samples - to shed light on not just a particular work of art but also the time during which it was created.
"The real starting point are the questions made by conservators and curators," said Basso. "So starting from those questions, usually we decide what's the analytical protocol we have to use for that project."
The program is funded for another four years. Researchers say there are so many works of art to analyze that they hope the program continues.