Materials Tour at UMMA

Materials Tour at UMMA

Discover the science behind artistic objects

Grace Farrar Knowlton - 1932 – 2020
Papier-mâché Ball after 1970
papier-mâché on metal frame
18 in x 18 in x 18 in (45.72 cm x 45.72 cm x 45.72 cm)
Gift of the Estate of James van Sweden

What is Materials Science and Engineering?

Materials science and engineering (MSE) involves the study of the physical world around us. The earliest materials scientists decided which stones were superior for tools or which natural fiber would be best for durable clothing or rope. While technology has advanced, the same desire to understand how the materials around us may be utilized to better our daily lives, and civilization as a whole, drives new research and development in the field of MSE. Materials also have a critical role in other fields as well; many of the aspects of MSE that apply to science and technology apply to the world of art which is part of the reason why this series was created.

The materials science tetrahedron (shown below) defines the materials science and engineering paradigm. The tetrahedron emphasizes the four interdependent, distinct aspects of materials science: processing, structure, properties, and performance. These “corners” of the tetrahedron may seem simple, but from an educational point of view, it is critical to identify what students learn about each corner. These corners also play a role in artistic selections as well and we will try to give examples here of each.


MSE tetrahedron.jpg

Processing - How a material will be processed to form its final shape is critical to the role it will perform. Examples of materials processing techniques include heating/cooling, molding, and grinding.

  • Scientific Example: A steel beam that is going to be used in a building might be quenched (dunked in a bath of cooling liquid) to achieve certain strength requirements.
  • Artistic Example: A piece of glass for an ornament will need to be heated to a certain temperature to allow it to be molded/blown into the desired shape.

Structure - What a certain object is made out of, and how the material that makes that object is processed, determines the structure. As materials scientists, we often look at structure on many different length scales to determine how a material behaves; this includes using electron beams to look at details on materials that are on the nanoscale (1/1000th the thickness of a human hair).

  • Scientific Example: Quenching the steel beam will result in changes to the structure of the steel on a level not visible to the human eye. Looking at how different crystals form in the steel under a microscope will help determine whether it will be strong/weak.
  • Artistic Example: The structure of rapidly cooled glass will be more brittle and prone to breaking than slowly cooled glass that structurally embodies less atomic strain.

Properties - Properties are anything measurable about a material. Density, melting temperature, magnetism are all properties of materials that determine whether they perform in certain applications.

  • Scientific Example: If someone came to you asking to invest their idea to build an airplane out of lead you may want to pass on the initial trial flight. To be able to fly, you need a lightweight but strong material, like aluminum, that will allow you to have the strength needed to hold the plane together but also get off the ground. In this case, the density of lead versus aluminum, one of the properties of the material, are critical to their proper utilization.
  • Artistic Example: Fool’s gold (pyrite or iron sulfide) has a density that is 4 times smaller than real gold. Though visually similar, they can be differentiated by their material property.

Performance - The degree in which a material will function in a certain application determine its performance.

  • Scientific Example: The tiles that are on the outside of the space shuttle must be able to withstand extremely high temperatures when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Artistic Example: Freshly quarried marble is relatively soft and easy to form but gets harder with exposure giving it ideal performance for long lasting, beautiful sculptures.

Characterization - This describes the methods and techniques used to measure the material and is tied to all the other points of the tetrahedron.

  • Scientific Example: Measuring the boiling point of water versus alcohol using a thermometer.
  • Artistic Example: Measuring the age of a certain painting using carbon dating.
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About this Tour

Developed by students in the Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) program at U-M, this tour will better help you understand the scientific properties of various art objects throughout UMMA’s collection. Learn more about this tour on our Curriculum/Collection Blog. 

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Curriculum Collection 2022

Learn more about all of the courses in Curriculum / Collection 2022 

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