WPI Students Develop Innovative System to Catalog, Conserve Venice's Outdoor Art

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WORCESTER, Mass. -- The glory of Venice is in its art and its history, says Fabio Carrera of Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Venice Project Center. "However, a great many of the approximately 5,000 pieces of public art -- outdoor sculpture, keystones, wellheads, bells -- have deteriorated. If this continues, the loss to the city and to the world will be virtually incalculable."

WPI seniors Jesus Beltran of Quito, Ecuador, Erin Brophy of Castleton, N.Y., and Alex Cardenas of Eldorado, Panama recently completed a project that could enable professionals to save many of these works. For their Interactive Qualifying Project, a degree requirement they fulfilled at the Institute's Venice Project Center, Beltran, Brophy, and Cardenas developed a new method for obtaining the weights that should be assigned to the various factors that determine the priority of art for restoration. Their method was adapted from a technique developed by psychologists and reported in the literature on judgment and decision-making. The new method makes extensive use of linear regression analysis, a common statistical procedure, to evaluate and prioritize the art for restoration and repair.

The students examined 422 pieces of outdoor art in the city's Dorsoduro section and recorded such data as the number and length of fractures, degree of discoloration, surface consumption and missing parts. With linear regression analysis they were able to determine the importance of each of the parameters in providing an immediate, quantifiable way for professionals to see which ones should be repaired or restored first. MapInfo, a Geographical Information System (GIS), was used to create a map of all he pieces cataloged in this IQP. Carrera and Douglas Woods, professor and head of the Social Science & Policy Studies Department were the advisors for this project, which won the 1995 President's IQP Awards competition in November.

Carrera is a Venetian who received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from WPI in 1984 and completed his master's degree in computer science at the Institute in December 1995. He has discussed the project with representatives of SOS (Save Outdoor Sculpture), a collaboration of the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property and the National Museum of American Art dedicated to seeking funds for documenting, restoring, and maintaining outdoor sculpture in the U.S., and with administrators from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Trust for Historic Conservation. "The goal is to introduce them to the database and show them how they may be able to adapt this very sophisticated system to their own work."

Creation of the database began in 1990, when Carrera started working with teams of WPI students who came to the university's newly established Venice Project Center to complete their IQPs. Over the next four years, four WPI student project teams photographically documented outdoor sculptures in the city's historical boroughs and created a computerized catalogue system that contains scanned images and electronic maps, artistic/historical information from existing literature, and technical information on the condition of each piece from observations made in the field by WPI students and by volunteers from Earthwatch, a scientific field-research organization.

The project completed in 1995 by Beltran, Brophy, and Cardenas is the capstone of these efforts. "This IQP, the fifth and final WPI student study of Venice's outdoor art, completes the first database catalogue of public art ever created for the city," says Carrera. "What is most remarkable is that is was researched and compiled almost entirely by WPI students and that it can be used by virtually any other municipality or museum interested in conserving or preserving its public art."

Other Venice Project Center and Earthwatch teams have already begun to expand the catalogue to include the city's wellheads, keystones, bells, and bell towers. "The expansion of the overall public art catalogue will continue for the next few years," says Carrera, who has been working with municipal officials to raise funds from individuals or groups within the city to begin restoring some of the outdoor art identified in the database.

The IQP is one of three projects all undergraduates at WPI undertake as part of the innovative WPI Plan, a flexible, exciting, and academically challenging program introduced in 1971. Under the Plan, students are provided with unique opportunities for integrating classroom studies with pre-professional academic projects conducted on campus or at companies, agencies and project sites in the U.S> and abroad. The purpose of the IQP is to make students aware of their responsibilities to manage technology effectively and ethically.

The Venice Project Center is part of WPI's Global Perspective Program. About one-third of the Institute's undergraduates complete their required projects with businesses and organizations at locations in North America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. They account for more than 15 percent of all U.S. engineering students studying abroad.

Jesus Maria Beltran, son of Leonor E. and Jesus M. Beltran Sr. of Quito, Ecuador, is a native of Bogota, Colombia, who has lived in Quito since 1987. A senior majoring in mechanical engineering with aerospace interests, Beltran plans to study international law after graduation. He and his wife, Lanir, a student at Clark University, live in Worcester, Mass.

"I came back from Venice with much broader horizons and with a broader perspective about the world we live in," says Beltran. "As an international student, I had already been able to experience this once when I came to the U.S.; going to Venice was really like opening a whole new door. I came to understand and appreciate art in a whole new way. I now find myself noticing things I would never have noticed before. I was also able to experience a whole new culture, a whole new lifestyle. This experience has innumerable positive implications."

Erin E. Brophy, daughter of James and Nancy Brophy of Castleton, N.Y., is a junior majoring in biotechnology who hopes to attend medical school. She is philanthropy coordinator of Alpha Gamma Delta sorority and a member of the Student Alumni Society and BACCHUS (Boosting Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of Students).

"My experience in Venice has instilled a greater appreciation for the works of art studied in this IQP," she says. "The outdoor art in Venice not only contributes to the beauty of the city, but is also a piece of the city's unique history."

Alex Cardenas, son of Jacinto and Griselda Cardenas of El Dorado, Panama, is a senior physics major who plans to attend graduate school next fall. He is a member of Tau Beta Pi, the Society of Physics Students, the Hispanic Students Association and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

"In Venice, I realized the importance of the WPI Plan," says Cardenas. "I experienced the opportunity to solve a real-world opportunity to solve a real-world problem by using knowledge not only in technical areas, but also in the humanities and arts. The computerized catalog made me integrate my computer, mathematical, and artistic knowledge into one single project to solve a problem of society."

Fourteen other WPI students in four IQP teams also competed for this year's President's IQP Award. About 200 IQPs are completed each year; 25 teams submitted their IQPs to a panel of faculty members who selected the finalists for this year's competition.

The 1995 President's IQP Award finalists are:

Barry DeCoster of Mechanic Falls, Maine, Michael Dupont of Dighton, Mass, and Peter Manolakos of Peabody, Mass were named finalists for "Proposal for Client Satisfaction Measurement Survey Prepared for the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability." For their IQP, completed at WPI's London Project Center, the students created a pilot study to measure patient satisfaction at the hospital.

Joseph Beauchemin of Holyoke, Mass, Samuel Fix of Lee, Mass, and John Coolidge of Barre, Vt. were recognized for their "Proposal for the Deep Sea Gallery for the National Maritime Museum." The students, who also worked out of WPI's London Project Center, organized preliminary research and studied how the museum, which is located in Greenwich, England, could best present material on the power and movement of the sea, global warming and rising ocean levels, and how sound travels in the ocean so that visitors could comprehend and interact with the displays. English Professor Kent Ljungquist served as advisor to both of these projects.

Joseph Batcha of Trumbull, Conn., Matthew Dei of Mansfield, Mass, Daniel Horgan of Ashburnham, Mass, and Christopher Michalak of Penfield, N.Y. explained their IQP, "An Assessment of Pedestrian Mobility in the San Juan Area." Puerto Rico's Department of Transportation and Public Works has been examining public transportation to determine ways of reducing traffic and congestion. Fir their IQP, which they completed at WPI's Puerto Rico Project Center in San Juan, the students examined published literature, did field studies and interviewed traffic safety and urban planning professionals to determine how to improve the public walkways along Ponce de Leon Avenue and Loiza Street to encourage people to walk instead of ride.

A second project at the Puerto Rico Project Center was also among the finalists. "Feasibility of Submarine Sand Extraction in Puerto Rico," by Bradley Forrest of Ashburnham, Mass, Chad Hamel of Bethlehem, N.H., Martin Rosner of Andover, Conn., and Timothy Tully of Greenville, R.I., examined the impact of Operation Bootstrap, a self-help industrial development program that led to rapid economic growth but provoked the exploitation of sand from beaches, dunes and rivers for 20 years during the 1950s and 1960s. Chemistry Professor Stephen Weininger was the project advisor for both IQPs.