The internationally networked Rathgen-Forschungslabor examines objects ranging from ancient times to the present day. It takes an interdisciplinary approach to clarifying matters of preservation, material, origin, and forgery.

Examination of the seated figure of Hetepnjaus at the Rathgen-Forschungslabor (Opens a larger version of the image)

The seated figure of Hetepnjaus from the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung being examined with the portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer ARTAX for non-destructive elemental analysis (Inv. No. ÄM 34428, painted limestone, c. 2250 B.C.) © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Sabine Schwerdtfeger

International Demand: The Expertise of the Rathgen-Forschungslabor

The Rathgen-Forschungslabor (Rathgen Research Laboratory) of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) is one of Germany's leading scientific institutions. It is the oldest museum laboratory in the world, having been founded in 1888 as the chemical laboratory of the Royal Museums in Berlin. To this day, it continues to develop methodological knowledge for the museums. The institute works on interdisciplinary basis both within the Foundation and outside it.

The Rathgen-Forschungslabor tackles issues in the areas of natural science, conservation science, art technology, and archaeometry. It examines objects from the Foundation's collections that consist of many different materials. The laboratory is also commissioned by other institutions to examine their objects. The expertise of its staff also covers subjects relevant to the preservation of historic monuments and archaeological sites.

The research laboratory has five fields of work:

  • Preventive conservation, which aims to prevent objects deteriorating, and the investigation of decay processes.
  • Close cooperation with conservators in the field of conservation science, in order to develop new methods of restoration
  • Aspects of art technology, including the investigation of forgeries
  • Archaeometric tasks such as dating, determining origins, material analysis, and isotopic analysis
  • A further important service is trace-element analysis, which the institute offers in cooperation with other museums and institutions.

Interdisciplinary Cooperation with Research Institutions and Museums

As scientists undertaking examinations in the field of the humanities, the experts of the Rathgen-Forschungslabor take an interdisciplinary approach to their work. The variety of questions that they face necessitates cooperation with other research institutions, such as the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung (Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing) and the Helmholtz-Zentrum für Materialien und Energien, Helmholtz Centre for materials and energy. Furthermore, it is often necessary to examine objects from different collections together and compare them.

The institute participates in a number of national and international bodies for the preservation of movable and immovable cultural heritage. Its director is the Foundation's spokesperson in the Forschungsallianz Kulturerbe (Cultural Heritage Research Alliance), which was set up in 2008. Together with distinguished partners in the alliance, the Foundation develops innovative restoration and conservation methods.

In addition, the Rathgen-Forschungslabor is an active partner in the IPERION CHinitiative, a platform for European research into cultural heritage. The network, which currently includes 24 outstanding European institutions, as well as the Getty Institute in the United States, was launched in June 2015. It is Europe's biggest infrastructure for cultural heritage research. One of the main contributions by the Rathgen-Forschungslabor is testing new, minimally invasive methods of analyzing the materials in works of art. It also investigates how particle accelerators, for instance, could be used for research into cultural objects.

The First Chemist at a Museum: Friedrich Rathgen

The first head of the chemical laboratory of the Royal Museums in Berlin was Friedrich Rathgen, a chemist, who was appointed in 1888. He introduced a scientific approach to the care and maintenance of museum objects and made a major contribution to the development of modern archaeological restoration.