Chemists in the Real World:
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
PH.D., PHYSICAL ORGANIC CHEMISTRY,
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON
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.
Q: How did you find your first chemistry-
related job after you graduated?
Breitung: 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.
Q: What personal talent or trait makes
you a great fit for your job?
Breitung: 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.
Q: What’s the best career advice you’ve received?
Breitung: When my physics professor said, “Go into chemistry,
not physics” it got me into an area that was a much better fit to
Q: What are your primary responsibilities
in your current position?
Breitung: I work on the science that helps to preserve art. I
Q: What do you like most about your job?
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.
Breitung: 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
Q: What advice would you give students who are
interested in following in your footsteps?
Breitung: 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
You’ll likely need a master’s degree or 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