What can Heritage Science do for you? ‘Framing research questions and developing research projects’

Author: Veronica Ford

In this opening section of the workshop Lora and Paola focused on how to clearly and carefully frame research questions and how museum professionals can establish a constructive dialogue with the heritage scientist carrying out the research. The need to set realistic, manageable, and targeted research goals was rightly emphasised, with the course leaders suggesting a frequent pitfall was for researchers to be too ambitious with their aims – for instance requesting all pigments on a painting are analysed as opposed to just one or a select few.

It was shown that it is fundamental that the correct data is gathered in the correct way for a research project to be successful. To determine this it is important to be clear what analysis is being used to inform. The course leaders divided research projects into two principle types: practice based and practice led. Many curatorial questions about an individual object fall under the category of practice based research, such as determining the authorship, provenance, and composition of an object. Practice led research, in this context, can often involve determining the correct conservation technique for a particular object or group of objects.

One of the major strengths of the workshop, and this section in particular, was how the course leaders liberally used case studies to elucidate and contextualise their examples of research questions. This helped to show the potential scope of research projects. For instance, visible light induced luminescence was used to help determine the provenance of a manuscript from Cambridge University which had both Frankish and English elements. Analysis indicated that the blue pigment of the manuscript contained Egyptian blue, a pigment which is found more regularly in English not Frankish manuscripts of this era, thus indicating that the manuscript was likely of English manufacture. This example showed how important research questions can be answered through the careful selection of specific analytical techniques to analyse specific datasets.

Particularly beneficial was how the course leaders, as heritage scientists themselves, acknowledged the unique problems and limitations of working within the heritage sector, such as the need to create representative aged samples to carry out testing. At the root of the course was an awareness that conservators often tread the fine line between the objective and the subjective when making conservation decisions, as well as what this means when interacting with scientists – particularly those that are not heritage scientist specialists – who tend to work well within the realm of the objective.

Veronica Ford (veronica.ford@bodleian.ox.ac.uk) is an Assistant Preventive Conservator at Bodleian Libraries (@BodCons ). 


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