Looking at analytical techniques and equipment during NHSF and UCM’s workshop ‘What can heritage science do for you?’
I attended the workshop entitled ‘What can heritage science do for you?’ on the 12th March 2019 at the British Library, held as part of British Science Week. Dr. Paola Ricciardi and Dr. Lora Angelova supported by the excellent staff at the British Library’s conservation department were able to provide a whistle-stop tour through the use and benefits of:
Exciting case studies of current analytical work were presented and used to colour the reasons of how heritage science can complement the usual glamour of engagement at our museum and gallery exhibitions. A personal highlight was discussion on the recent analysis of Isaac Oliver’s cabinet miniature of Lord Herbert of Cherbury (on display at Powis Castle in Mid Wales). Using the equipment listed above, Dr. Ricciardi’s explanation of how analysis brought forward the mystery of how Oliver may have learnt the art of cabinet miniatures in Flanders and not Britain as previously thought, based upon the analysis of green copper sulphate pigments displayed how these machines can offer so much more than just identification and data.
The practical session during the afternoon gave the chance to get hands on with the equipment and get a good idea of the intended use, reliability and cost of each machine. The range of equipment and knowledge available during the day was able to complement all levels of experience, yet highly recommended for those employed in the heritage sector that are curious about covering another aspect of collections care which can often take place under the radar.
It is well worth keeping an eye out for more training and workshops from the NHSF on ICON’s website and if you’re employed in the heritage sector, checking if your own organisation is a member too!
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.
Over the next week, we will be publishing reflections from attendees of our ‘What can heritage science do for you?’ workshop that we held in partnership with the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) back in March.
The one-day workshop took place at the British Library to explore the benefits of heritage science research in the context of collections-based research and outreach activities.
Participants learnt about a range of analytical methods, which methods can be used to learn more about the materials composition, history, original context and current conservation and storage needs of archaeological, archival and museum objects.
During the workshop, real case studies of heritage science research applied to a range of objects were presented and discussed.
Participants were asked to contribute their experience of, or aspirations for, collaboration with heritage science researchers. The workshop was targeted at conservators, curators, early career scientists, collections managers, archivists and librarians working in museums, archives, libraries and historic houses.
A limited number of free places were available to employees or members of NHSF member organisations.
The recent Heritage Science Hackathon held at UCL Here East on the 18th and 19th of May was a resounding success, organised by Ida Ahmad, Rosie Brigham and Gavin Leong. It brought many people from different backgrounds to work on issues faced by two local heritage institutions. Originally emerging from the tech sector, hackathons are events, usually lasting the weekend, which gather people from across different sectors to compete in teams to create solutions to common problems, in this case, problems faced by the heritage partners.
After an initial ideas and brainstorming session, participants broke up into teams of up to 7 to work on their solutions. Eastside Community Heritage was looking for an effective and sustainable way to open up the Hidden Histories archive whilst Thames Festival Trust asked contestants how they could better collect, map and archive smells and sent memories to assist in their upcoming program The Barking Stink.
Workshops related to the challenges gave attendees the opportunity to delve deeper into some of the scientific and technical aspects of heritage science. Cecilia Bembibre delivered a fantastic hands on workshop that looked at what heritage smells are, and involved asking the groups to model out of playdough the form of the smell in her specially created ‘smell pens’ were. Giles Bergel delivered a similarly interesting talk that looked at the different ways computer vision is being used across digital archives whilst Rosie Brigham taught an introduction to web development, to give a technical edge to any participants who were looking to upskill.
At the end of the second day, each team had to pitch the solutions they had been working on to a panel of judges. In total eight pitches were made, Initially, two prizes were up for grabs; one for the best idea relating to each heritage partner. These were awarded to teams SearchOral and KAD. SearchOral created a scalable and searchable database of transcripts, through which researchers could request access to the Hidden Histories archive. KAD created an innovative way to present heritage smells in their local context in East London using totems. The judges were so impressed by the calibre of all the pitches that they decided to award a third prize to team Aurora, for their plan to create a lightweight device that captured the chemistry of a given smell in real time.
An immensely fun weekend was had by all, and we can highly recommend the format of a hackathon to engage new audiences with issues, and to find solutions, in Heritage Science. It has proved a successful way to bring new ideas into organisations and form new partnerships.
Bringing our series of blogs for BSW2019 to a close, is Rosie Brigham who describes a new ‘citizen science’ research project taking place as a collaboration between Historic Environment Scotland and University College London.
Author: Rosie Brigham
Research partners: Institute of Sustainable Heritage (UCL), Historic Environment Scotland
This spring marks the start of a new collaborative research project between Historic Environment Scotland and University College London. Entitled “Monument Monitor”, the aim of the project is to assess how to what extent visitors’ photographs can be used for remote condition monitoring. Visitors to selected properties will find signs prompting them to take photographs of specific aspects of the site and then email/message/tweet or instagram their image with the hashtag #MonumentMonitor.
Trailed last year on Machrie Moor and Holyrood House Palace this crowdsourcing project has already brought in some interesting results. Images of the famous stone circles on Arran were submitted over the period of a year, which enabled conservators to better visualise groundwater levels of the site alert them to an incident of vandalism. Previous work has ascertained that, with enough submissions, photographs from modern camera phones can accurately measure colour. With this in mind, we hope to ascertain to what extent we can use this method to measure biofilm growth, erosion and soiling at other sites.
UNESCO have recently digitised 5000 images from their archives that document pivotal moments in the past 70 years of history and are asking the public to help them unlock the stories behind each photo.
By adding data tags and transcribing information, it is hoped that the public will be able to enrich the information available to make the images more accessible to researchers. In particular, many photos have written notes on the back than need to be transcribed to improve the findability of each record.
This is another example of how instrumental crowdfunding can be to archival and research projects. Without the public’s help, the information contained in these images would continue to be unfound by those trying to answer specific historical questions.
Click here to find out more about the project and how to get involved.
On Saturday 16 March 2019, between 10 am and 4 pm, The British Museum will be offering their visitors the chance to explore how science is used to discover the stories of their collections.
There will be the chance to see the latest scientific technology in action and to handle raw materials. Visitors will also learn about the techniques used to monitor and preserve collections and the importance of this.
The event is free and will take place in the Great Court. Find out more about this event and other British Science Week events here.