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Dr Katrien Keune, Head of Science at the Rijksmuseum, has been named professor by special appointment at the John van Geuns chrair of Molecular Spectroscopy at the Faculty of Science of the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Keune is responsible, among others, for the scientific research during 'Operation Night Watch'. As a professor, Keune will focus primarily on the application of molecular spectroscopy for the study of historic paints and their degradation.
Keune in the Rijksmuseum
Katrien Keune has been working at the Rijksmuseum since 2015 and is Head of Science since 2019. A compelling current project is 'Operation Night Watch', the largest research project on Rembrandt's iconic masterpiece ever, taking place under the eyes of the public. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Jordi Huisman.

Katrien Keune is one of the Netherlands' leading researchers at the intersection of art history and the natural sciences. Ever since her PhD research she has been using her chemical expertise to preserve cultural heritage and to enrich and improve art historical interpretation. Her focus is on complex processes in paint. As a professor, Keune hopes to bring the still young field of research into the chemical aspects of paintings and painted objects to maturity, connecting fundamental insights with application-oriented research.

How masterpieces change

Molecular spectroscopy enables the analysis of the paint used for masterpieces, using light and various other forms of radiation (such as UV, infrared, and X-rays). This provides very detailed information about the materials used and maps out the chemical elements and molecules. In combination with laboratory research into paint degradation processes, this helps to provide insight into how paint layers change and degrade over time. Keune's research thus provides a scientific explanation for the changing appearance of paintings over time.

The research also provides a scientific basis for the development of new, sophisticated methods for cleaning and conservation, and offers new insights for the improvement of indoor museum climates. In addition, it offers information on the source, trading, and use of the artistic materials (such as pigments and binders), which is relevant for art historical questions.

Chair for Light and Matter

The Special Chair in Molecular Spectroscopy was established by the foundation 'John van Geuns Fonds'. This was founded in 1957 in memory of its namesake, who was active in petrochemistry and had a special interest in the interaction between light and matter. With an appointment of one day per week for a period of five years, Katrien Keune is the eighth John van Geuns Professor since 1969. The chair is part of the Molecular Photonics group at the Van 't Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences at the UvA where it contributes to the focus area Chemistry of Complex Systems and Materials. The chair will also strengthen the Netherlands Institute for Conservation + Arts + Science + (NICAS). The UvA is one of the founders of this partnership between scientists in the fields of conservation, art history, physics, chemistry and computer science.

Regarding education, Keune will contribute to the BSc and MSc program in Chemical Sciences, where degradation research provides interesting starting points to highlight more complex chemical topics. She will also mentor students in literature reviews and thesis projects. In addition, the chair will contribute to advanced specialized courses for PhD students and postdocs such as from the Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry (HRSMC).

Keune in front of a cupboard with historic paint materials
Photo: Rijksmuseum, Jordi Huisman.