Elisabeth West FitzHugh examining an Islamic manuscript. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Conservation and Scientific Research department files, 1958-01, photograph by Ray Schwartz. 

Elisabeth West FitzHugh, a Driving Force in Cultural Heritage Conservation and Scientific Research

Learn about FitzHugh’s over 50-year career in conservation science at the Smithsonian.

During the 2020 Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative’s American Women of Science Symposium (recorded here), Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner identified Elisabeth West FitzHugh (1926-2017) as the first female cultural heritage scientist at the Smithsonian. From 1956 to 2011, FitzHugh worked in conservation science at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, now the National Museum of Asian Art 

In her talk, Dr. Stoner, University of Delaware Professor of Material Culture and Director of its Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, explained cultural heritage conservation as a three-legged stool composed of (1) the study of the history and meaning of artworks, (2) the scientific understanding of the materials in a work, and (3) the hand skills needed to restore, repair, and protect works of art. Elisabeth FitzHugh’s work in conservation science fit squarely in this second category. Over time, she developed expertise in the history and identification of pigments in works of art. This type of conservation research contributes to the understanding of the material composition of a work and the context in which it was created, and can reveal how best to care for an object.  

A woman wearing glasses and a lab coat takes a photo of a museum object in a laboratory.

In 1976, Dr. Stoner recorded an oral history with FitzHugh, during which she narrated her path to becoming a conservation scientist. FitzHugh recounted how she had an “open mind” as she tried to break into museum work in the United States. In 1955, equipped with a BA in chemistry from Vassar College and a diploma in the archaeology of Western Asia from the University of London, FitzHugh met with Fogg Art Museum curator George Hanfmann to explore her options. Hanfmann recommended that FitzHugh contact chemist Rutherford J. Gettens at the Smithsonian, given her background in chemistry and archaeology.  

As luck would have it, Gettens was looking for an assistant to work alongside him in the newly created technical research lab at the Freer Gallery. At the time, it was the first and only lab of its kind at the Smithsonian. As described in the 1952 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, the lab was dedicated to the “investigation of material and techniques of the artists and craftsmen represented in the Freer collections.”   

FitzHugh also shared information about some of the instruments she worked with in her early years at the Smithsonian to identify the materials, even microscopic materials, in works of art. She analyzed Chinese bronzes by wet chemical methods at the Freer and utilized non-Smithsonian labs to analyze them by emission spectroscopy, a method for analyzing radiation. At the time, the Freer had three different microscopes, a chemical microscope, a metallurgical one and a comparison microscope. When FitzHugh wanted to use X-ray diffraction, a method for identifying minerals and other crystalline materials in works, she would go over to the Smithsonian’s Division of Mineral Sciences in the National Museum of National History (NMNH). The Freer had their own camera, FitzHugh explains, but they shared the expense of film and development with the other museum. FitzHugh would stop by NMNH first thing in the morning and set up cameras and let them run. Then next morning, she’d go back to develop the film and then do the same thing all over again.   

A woman wearing glasses looks into a microscope.

Over the course of her career at the Smithsonian, in addition to helping to develop the first technical research laboratory at the Freer Gallery, FitzHugh became an authority on Chinese jade and bronze and Japanese painting, and eventually developed a specialty in the history and identification of pigments in works of art, even identifying two previously undescribed pigments, Han blue and Han purple. For more on how this discovery unfolded over the course of her career, see her 2002 Forbes Prize Lecture. FitzHugh retired in 1991, but she continued working as a research associate at the Smithsonian until 2011.  

Outside of the Smithsonian, FitzHugh played an equally significant role in developing the field of conservation science. She authored and co-authored many articles, edited the third volume of the National Gallery of Art series on Artists’ Pigments, served as the vice president and president of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), and as editor of the Journal of the AIC. Additionally, FitzHugh’s colleagues recognized her achievements with numerous awards, including the R. J. Gettens Award from the AIC in 1990, the 1999 Heritage Preservation Award from College Art Association, the 2002 Forbes Prize from the International Institute for Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works (IIC), and she was a Council Member of the Washington Conservation Guild.  

A woman sits at a table and takes notes as she analyzes an old text.

Elisabeth West FitzHugh’s career trajectory is inspiring. Her passion to follow her interests in chemistry and archaeology led her to museum work. There, she created opportunities to pursue innovative, interdisciplinary research that benefited conservators and scientists at the Smithsonian and the wider fields of conservation and conservation science.  

Related Collections

  • Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Office of Public Affairs, Subject Files, Accession 02-046, Smithsonian Institution Archives  
  • Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Office of Special Events, Photographs, Accession 02-007, Smithsonian Institution Archives  

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