Remote access to Scanning Electron Microscopy at the Natural History Museum

The expansion of remote access to microscopy equipment at the Natural History Museum is the subject of this post from Professor Aviva Burnstock of the Courtauld Institute of Art. The British Science Week theme of #innovation is evident in the resilience and enthusiasm of staff and students from both organisations.

The Courtauld has for decades maintained a fruitful collaboration with the Natural History Museum (NHM) for research on painting materials and techniques and evaluating methods for the conservation of paintings. We have relied on regular access to scanning electron microscope (SEM) imaging and elemental analysis for the examination of paint layers and high-resolution imaging and characterisation of inorganic pigments that cannot be identified using other methods. Lockdown presented major challenges for access to these vital resources, equipment and expertise. Alex Ball and Innes Clatworthy from the Natural History Museum have worked tirelessly to provide our staff and students remote access for electron microscopy including training and support. Now we can, following current Covid safety regulations, deliver our samples to the NHM and book a remote session on the equipment, undertaken through our lap-tops from the comfort of our homes. Support for this process has inspired the current generation of students, many of whom come from fine arts and humanities backgrounds to do the high-level scientific work that is essential for the conservation of paintings even in these most difficult times.

With the initial guidance (and patience) of Innes, the remote control of the SEM machine felt very similar to using the system in person at the NHM. The screen resolution was clear, the connection was good and it was easy to save and access files, I just need to remember how to use all the buttons!”  Megan Levet  graduate student in Conservation, Courtauld Institute of Art

It was really amazing and slightly surreal to be able to use the equipment from my house. Innes was super helpful and made the process seem easy and straightforward. I look forward to making the most of this facility in the near future”, India Ferguson graduate student in Conservation, Courtauld Institute of Art. 

I didn’t expect to be able to begin using SEM EDX at this time when so much is restricted. I was unsure how the analysis would work remotely. With the support of Innes at the NHM accessing the software was straightforward; once the sample was in the chamber it was almost as good as being there. Beautiful images of a painting cross section were streamed to my laptop and analysis could be performed simply by pointing and clicking on a chosen area. I look forward to using this powerful tool to support my work in the near future!” Jack Chauncy, graduate student in Conservation, Courtauld Institute of Art

A picture of remote SEM access
Accessing the Natural History Museum’s SEM remotely
(Image copyright Courtauld Institute of Art)

Written by Aviva Burnstock, Professor of Conservation at the Courtauld Institute of Art

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