A day in the life of heritage science students at Hellens Manor

Our final guest post for British Science Week 2018, #BSW18, comes from Gavin Leong, a student on the SEAHA MRes course. In this post Gavin reflects on the SEAHA cohort’s visit to Hellens Manor, which took place earlier in British Science Week, to analyse paintings using hyperspectral imaging techniques and carry out environmental monitoring and risk assessments that will inform future approaches to collection care.

Every year, a new roster of Masters students from EAHA visit a lovely old country house sat in scenic Herefordshire. But, far from a holiday or a retreat, these students are here to carry out research. And this isn’t any old house, it’s one of the few surviving 12th century English abodes, Hellens Manor.

Today is Tuesday 13th March 2018, it’s 9.25 AM and the sun is just peeking out of the clouds over Hellens. The imaging group are about to head out to Bloody Mary’s room, a place said to be haunted. But instead of looking for paranormal activity, for the past two days they’ve been painstakingly taking images of paintings using multispectral imaging and infrared reflectography. The former was used as a rapid survey of the ultraviolet, infrared and visible spectrum, while the latter can reveal underdrawings.

With the camera equipment, lighting and cables strewn across the floor they resemble a film crew on the set of a period drama. The stars in this production are two paintings, on canvas and panel. Today, however, they will be using hyperspectral imaging to analyse areas of the paintings with similar composition and pigmentation, which can highlight more modern modifications to the paintings.

It’s now 11.35 AM. The environmental monitoring group are taking advantage of the abundant sunlight, a welcome respite after the recent bout of heavy snow and rain. They’re in the stone hall, where you can find an impressive fireplace that bears the crest of Edward, the Black Prince. But their eyes are drawn to the two equally compelling tapestries. One half of the team are thermal imaging, and measuring the UV and intensity of light falling on the woven fabric, while the other half are assessing its condition using a handheld microscope.

Image of thermal imaging at Hellens Manor by SEAHA students
Thermal imaging at Hellens Manor by SEAHA students

 

Image of condition assessment of tapestry at Hellens Manor using a handheld microscope
Assessing the condition of a tapestry at Hellens Manor using a handheld microscope.

Later, they’ll be setting up a camera for digital image correlation to observe any deformation or small changes in strain of the tapestries. By correlating these changes with measurements of fluctuation in humidity, temperature and light in the room, it could contribute to recommendations on best practice for conserving the tapestries in the stone hall.

On any other day it would be difficult for any passing observer to spot the risk assessment group. But not today. It’s 3.17 PM and they’ve donned bright yellow disposable overalls and face masks for the sake of heritage science. Dubbed ‘Minions’ by one of their group members, they have the unenviable task of crawling under the Munthe ‘Cinderella-style’ dress carriage built in the 1860s to get to the back wall of the coach shed. But it was not in vain: there they find the elusive mould, predicted by the humidity and moisture assessment, on the red silk.

Image of looking for mould at Hellens Manor
Looking for mould at Hellens Manor

The carriages had not been assessed prior to the work by the team. With the fibre and pest identification, moisture content survey of the wood and corrosion assessment of the metal, the risk assessment group can present a strong case for the future management of the carriages.

Image of pest identification
Pest identification (carpet wool larvae)

To find out more about studying Heritage Science at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology, visit the SEAHA website. The Centre is currently advertising several studentships with mid-April application deadlines.

 

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