Reflection on the NHSF/Icon Heritage Science group student and ECR workshop of March 2021

James E. Churchill is a Funaro scholar of the M.S. Historic Preservation program at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of  Columbia University and an architectural conservator for Kreilick Conservation, LLC. A founding member of the archaeometallurgical committee at ASM International, he is passionate about widening the body of knowledge for conservation treatments in historic metalwork with interests straddling design, history and materials science.

In this blog post, James reflects on the event we held in March to understand the needs of heritage science students and Early Career Researchers, and how the Forum and Icon HSG might meet those needs.

I am an architectural conservator, currently practicing in and around Philadelphia and the northeast of the United States. Graduating from Columbia University in Historic Preservation, an equivalent to built heritage in the U.K., I had a particular focus on historic metalwork and have recently authored numerous articles on early modern nickel alloys for leading material science journals stateside. As a result, I was encouraged to consider a PhD with a British institution. After countless interactions with potential supervisors in the U.K., however, I became increasingly frustrated with little response and a lack of clarity for those caught between the science and art of heritage PhDs. Pushed between departments that included archaeology, environmental sciences, architecture and materials, I subsequently missed funding deadlines for 2021.

I heard about the NHSF through weeks of research on funding opportunities for British citizens and was interested in attending the workshop that was offered in March. The talks consisted of general information on the organization and more intimate sessions that split attendees up to discuss current issues and ideas for the future of heritage science in the U.K. Given the SEAHA funding is due to end in 2022, I was particularly interested in the funding initiatives, but also a more effective leadership that could liaise with universities to encourage such research to remain or return to the U.K. 

We live in incredibly important times. As government continue to jostle over climate policy, the world struggles with accelerating change that is collapsing animal populations, raising flood plains and desertifying swathes of land each year. Both intangible and tangible heritage is at grave risk. Protection of historic fabric is strongest when both science and art intersect to support vulnerable stakeholders. Only through this, will we reduce demolition and waste, lower our carbon footprint and protect life for all species on this planet. I believe the U.K. could offer a distinct advantage in a nimble post-Brexit world but requires a more robust system of support that centralises opportunities for emerging professionals. The NHSF is best positioned to offer this, and it is my hope that they work on those initiatives I and my fellow cohort suggested.

Cleaning feathers with lasers: a new challenge for scientists and conservators at the British Museum

Our next blog post for British Science Week 2021 comes from Dr. Moira Bertasa, Research Assistant in Laser Conservation Science in the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum. She describes new research to find a safe way of cleaning feathers with lasers.

The British Museum collection includes many objects made with bird feathers. This includes featherworks from South America and Oceania, but also more unusual objects such as a Victorian necklace with iridescent heads of humming birds and a Chinese snuff-bottle made with blue kingfisher feathers inlaid in silver (Figure 1). Cleaning feathers can be very difficult. Over time, they become brittle and traditional conservation cleaning methods such as gentle vacuum cleaning, brushing or solvent cleaning are unsuitable as they risk damage to the object.

Figure 1 – Hawaiian feather cape (Oc1944,02.2109), Victorian necklace (1993,0205.1)
and snuff-bottle (1936,0413.78). © The British Museum

In such situations, conservators and scientists join forces to explore new conservation techniques. I am a conservation scientist. In these years, I had the opportunity to explore a broad range of subjects from the study of innovative cleaning methods to remove stubborn stains from the artwork to the preservation of graffiti artworks. Currently, I am working with conservators at the British Museum to investigate the application of lasers to clean feathers. Laser radiation was found (by accident!) to be highly effective at removing black encrustations on marble facades while conducting holographic measurements in Venice in the 1970s. Since then, laser cleaning has become an established conservation method to clean stone and ceramics and it has been used at the British Museum since 2002. (To find out more about the Museum’s experience with laser cleaning, have a look at this short video)

Laser cleaning is a non-contact method, which makes it very useful for fragile artefacts, such as feathers. However, laser radiation can also cause serious damage to objects if the laser parameters are not carefully selected. For instance, at a high fluence (which is the energy of the laser per m2), it makes small holes in feathers, something that the conservators definitely want to avoid! This is why I do not test lasers on feathers from museum objects. Instead, I am currently testing our Er:YAG laser (Erbium-doped Yttrium Aluminium Garnet laser) on pigeon feathers collected during a walk in my local park (Figure 2). This way, I can select the appropriate laser cleaning parameters without worrying about causing damage to museum artefacts. I have just started my research and, in collaboration with conservators, hope to determine an effective and safe laser-cleaning procedure for feathers.

Figure 2 – Laser cleaning on different feathers and close up on a pigeon feather showing the holes (Ø 2mm) caused by the laser beam.

Written by Dr Moira Bertasa – Research Assistant in Laser Conservation Science in the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum (mbertasa@britishmuseum.org)

Further reading

M. Cooper and J. Larson (1998). Laser Cleaning in Conservation: An Introduction. A Butterworth-Heinemann Title

http://www.restituzioni.com/opere/mantello-cerimoniale-tupinamb/ (in Italian)