Q&A: Annette, a conservation scientist at Copenhagen’s SMK Museum

by Pratik Hariharan

I attended the opening of the Matisse: Red Studio exhibition at SMK upon the invitation of Annette S. Ortiz Miranda PhD. Annette is the world’s only female conservation scientist from Puerto Rico, I found out about her career and work on the paintings of Henri Matisse. Read the interview to learn more about her work and the mysteries Annette found while researching Matisse.

Tell us about yourself and how you arrived at where you are today.

I am trained as a chemist. I am Puerto Rican and back home conservation science is still catching up. While I was still a chemistry student, a speaker was invited to the university and he spoke about the relationship between chemistry and art. By the end of the speech, I was sure about being a part of it.

I now had a solid purpose and a direction to work towards. I moved to Spain once I finished my chemistry degree. I then pursued a master’s in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage and a PhD in Science and Restoration of Historic and Artistic Heritage. I started working on projects which were mainly around the conservation of cultural heritage. My career started in Spain and work took me to Chicago, America. As far as moving to Copenhagen, it all started with an offer from my current employer — Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK).

Photo credit: Misael Silva Media

Is the SMK museum popular amongst expats in Denmark?

Not really. I personally do not see a lot of expats coming in to visit the art exhibitions here at the SMK. It is a really good question and it is something I have been trying to understand as well. Maybe people are not interested, maybe there is a gap in communication because of the language, there could be many factors. Since most of the tours and the exhibitions here at the SMK are in Danish, expats find it difficult to follow. I wish there was a more straightforward answer.

Are there any conversations in your work groups about finding ways to draw more expats in?

I am personally involved in the Professional Women of Colour network (ProWoc) and the Danish Association for Women in Science (DANWISE). As SMK staff, I have the opportunity to invite people to visit the conservation studios and the laboratory. I also deliver talks in English, as part of the museum events for example SMK Fridays, SMK Akademiet and Kulturnatten.

How do you see equality in the STEM industry in DENMARK? Tell us your experience so far.

So, I work with women from the universities as well as from the emerging professionals network. Nobody has mentioned about being treated unfairly. There is a strong feeling of being an equal here in Denmark. If I had to compare my time in the United States to here, I would confidently proclaim that equality is a real thing here.

Are you the only woman of colour in most rooms you are entering? If yes, what is that experience like?

Here in Denmark, yes. The lack of representation makes me sad but at the same time I am very proud of my presence and how it could set an example. I hope people see that there is a space for other people of colour here. To anyone who might be reading and is skeptical, just go for it!

Credit: Alice (1916–1919) by Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920); SMK Museum.

Is there anything in particular which surprised you while studying Matisse for the SMK’s Red Studio Exhibition?

Yes! While studying one of the paintings’ in this collection Le Luxe II, I found a lot of arsenic in the brown of the ladies’ hair. It was found in a pigment which was not supposed to be available at the time. We are trying to understand how and where he found this pigment. We believe that the arsenic was part of the components used for painting houses in those days, but the research is ongoing.

Credit: Henri Matisse, Le Luxe II (1907–1908). ©Succession H. Matisse / VISDA 2023

What is your favourite painting in this collection?

The Nude with white scarf (1909) based on the exhibition room. I like the painting because I can see the creation process of the artists and I also like when paintings “talk” to me.

Credit: Henri Matisse, Nude with the white scarf (1909). ©Succession H. Matisse / VISDA 2023

Why do you think your research and the work you do in conserving art is important?

All these artworks and objects belong to all of us. To humanity. What I do with my job is find ways to preserve it for current and future generations. I do this by identifying the materials that were used in building these works of art. This helps in preserving them for the future but more importantly also in understanding our history. For example, we can find out what kind of methods were used in the nordics in the past in building ceramics. Retracing this path helps in understanding the culture and the evolution of the industry.

Credit: Henri Matisse, Bathers (1907), SMK. Featuring conservation scientist Annette S. Ortiz Miranda and conservator Pauline Lehmann Banke.

What has your experience working in Copenhagen, Denmark been like?

It has been two years since I moved here. I really like the city. I like my colleagues at work. Administration, bureaucracy and visas can sometimes be complicated, but I also had a similar experience in Spain. However it was harder here because I am fluent in Spanish, but not in Danish. Otherwise I still feel very welcome here and I am really excited about my future here both personally and professionally.

What’s next for you in 2023?

My contract will be complete in Denmark at the end of February. In March, I’ll be heading off to the United States to join the The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore as their Conservation Scientist.

Pratik Hariharan is a journalist writing on topics including colonial history, culture and corporate communications. A founding member of Media In Denmark, he is available for freelance writing projects. Having spent time in India, New Zealand and Romania, he has been living in Denmark for the past two years.

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