A brief theory of heritage science by Professor Matija Strlic, UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage

Premise 1: In one way or another, we have been doing heritage science for ages. I will use this term to describe the science of heritage, i.e. how we manage, interpret, conserve heritage as well as provide access to it [1]. In his lecture at the Royal Institution in 1843, Michael Faraday lectured about pollution importantly contributing to book degradation. A bit of poignant trivia: Faraday was trained as a bookbinder before he became one of the most influential scientists of all times.

Red rot on leather: one of the first topics to excite heritage scientists.


Premise 2: Heritage science is culturally dependent. The fact that ‘heritage’ is a culturally dependant term gives our field of scientific enquiry an interesting angle: the value (or, retrospectively, ‘impact’) of the science that we do depends on the culture we inhabit. Research on a 1970s piece of plastic furniture could be exciting in the context of a design museum and completely rubbish in the context of a society in which such objects do not have ‘cult’ status. I use the term deliberately.

Purchased in a flea market as rubbish, valuable as a scientific sample.


Premise 3: Heritage science is inherently biased. If heritage is stuff (tangible or intangible, material or digital) with cult status, don’t scientists, by doing research on it, contribute to its glorification? The heritage value of an object could well be its scientific interest – which makes the science that we do inherently biased, because by studying an object we implicitly contribute to its status. Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland is a case in point.[2]

Scientists create heritage through their research.


Premise 4: Heritage science can be neither fundamental nor experimental. While in the use of mock or surrogate objects for research, the experimental approach principles typical of scientific endeavour are embedded, science of heritage cannot be repeatable because heritage is not an experiment. Equally, there can be no fundamental research question because the objective of heritage science is always known.

As heritage is not repeatable, is heritage science experimental science?


Premise 5: Heritage science is multivariate. This is not to say that it is not exact science; however, since the context of heritage can be unknown, there can be any number of variables affecting the heritage system under observation – in this, the premise of heritage science comes close to social science, although the ‘society’ we study is a population of ‘things’ – with their individual lifetimes and dynamics of change and interactions (all culturally dependant, of course).

They look the same, move the same, feel the same, but are not identical.


Premise 6: Heritage science helps to interpret heritage. The heritage value of an object is in the benefits we obtain from interaction with it, not in its (material) representation (unless we believe that an object has value in and of itself). Through our senses, we interpret them and extract information from them. This metadata can become more valuable than the item itself; a study of the value of mineral collections has shown that curators may well value the metadata more than the objects.[3] The market value of this metadata can easily be immeasurable.[4]

Metadata: not just any snack, this one was in space!


Premise 7: Heritage science provides evidence for sustainable conservation. Keeping stuff for longer is inherently sustainable, but can keeping it for too long (the society has a view on what is acceptable) become an unsustainable proposition?[5]  How do we balance our need to own, with our needs to breathe and eat? We need evidence to provide balance. I risk sounding Darwinian when I say that when time has its way with heritage, it can be for the better.

Long-term storage: how long is too long?


Premise 8: Through improved access, heritage science contributes to well-being. Heritage that is accessible, in its preserved authentic form or as a (digital) reproduction, is a “resource for economic growth, employment and social cohesion”[6]. Quite how we should balance the extraction of economic or social benefits from the heritage resource with its preservation is an open question of heritage resource management and the science supporting it.

Digitisation: increased benefits from access to heritage.


Premise 9: Heritage science is proof that there is no world of Two Cultures [7].  A scientist, researching heritage defies the existence of the divide: there can be no scientific research of heritage without a contribution by humanities research. Heritage science also successfully bridges science and culture, because it provides an attractive vehicle to convey ideas and concepts related to technology and engineering, as well as culture and society.

Engaging with heritage and with science: there is no disciplinary gap.


Premise 10: Heritage science urgently needs to develop its identity. It yet needs to populate a defined space; it needs a voice to represent researchers; it needs a unifying theory; it needs to define its grand challenges.

Matija Strlic, UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritage_science 


[3] J. Robb, C. Dillon, M. Rumsey, M. Strlic: “Quantitative Assessment of Perceived Value of Geological Collections by ‘Experts’ for Improved Collections Management”, Geol. Cur., 9 (2013) 529-543

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/feb/02/new-michelangelo-sculptures-fitzwilliam-museum-cambridge-bronzes

[5] C. Dillon, W. Lindsay, J. Taylor, K. Fouseki, N. Bell, M. Strlic: “Collections demography: stakeholders’ views on the lifetime of collections”, Climate for Collections Conference, Munich, Doerner Institut, 7-9 November 2012, Postprints, J. Ashley-Smith, A. Burmester, M. Eibl (Eds.), Archetype, London, 2013, pp. 45-58.

[6] http://ec.europa.eu/culture/library/publications/2014-heritage-communication_en.pdf

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Cultures

Five minutes with…Cathy Tyers, Dendrochronologist, Historic England

What’s your background in heritage science?

Having completed a degree in Applied Biology I was offered a 4 month contract, funded by English Heritage, in the Archaeology Department at Sheffield University working in the dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) laboratory. I spent the next 28 years working in the laboratory on timbers from all over England from archaeological sites and historic buildings, and other wooden objects (logboats, chests, staircases, panelling, and even a totem pole!), as well as living trees. In 2012 I transferred from the university to work directly for English Heritage/Historic England.

What’s you role at Historic England?

I’m part of the Scientific Dating team and as a dendrochronologist I work with people right across both Historic England and the English Heritage Trust, as well as all sorts of people outside of these organisations, such as archaeologists, building historians, conservation officers, historic interest groups, and of course other dendrochronologists and heritage scientists. My role is to help understand the wealth of historic buildings and archaeological remains that we’re so lucky to have. One day I can be working with living trees to understand more about landscape gardens associated with some of our stately homes, another day I can be working on a roof in an apparently anonymous historic building that proves to be 14th century and hence suddenly very important, and the next providing a date for a timber structure that proves to be over 4000 years old.

Old Hall Farmhouse
Old Hall Farmhouse, Brightholmlee, Bradfield, near Sheffield. We were able to determine that the timbers were felled over 500 years ago, in 1484. Photograph by kind permission of Alison Arnold. © Alison Arnold


What’s been the most exciting/challenging thing you’ve worked on recently?

I’m currently involved in the dendrochronological component of a project investigating historic buildings in Beverley in Yorkshire. The project is being undertaken by the Yorkshire Vernacular Buildings Study Group (www.yvbsg.org.uk) with funding from Historic England. From a dendro point of view the work is proving somewhat challenging (and therefore most definitely fun) – this is an area of the country where surprisingly little previous work has been done and what has been done has shown that the trees used in the buildings are not behaving as they should do, making our job of dating them difficult! Having failed to date one of the buildings, with an impressive crown post roof and thought to be over 500 years old, by dendrochronology we’re now going to involve other heritage scientists and use another scientific dating technique so that the YVBSG does get a date for this building to include in their account about the early development of Beverley. I’m also very much hoping that all of this dendro work will tell us about the medieval woodlands that surrounded Beverley some 400-500 years ago that were used to produce the building timbers still visible in the town.

Who inspires you?

From a purely work perspective the people I gain most inspiration from are those members of specialist historical interest groups, like the YVBSG, who do so much investigative work in their own time and yet they provide the basis for so many of the fascinating projects that we as heritage scientists have the opportunity of being involved in.

What do you love most about your job?

I love the fact that I never really know from week to week what I’m going to be doing next or who I’m going to be talking to. I love the excitement of being able to show that the timbers in a roof of a building in a tiny hamlet near Sheffield were felled over 500 years ago in AD 1484; that the timbers excavated from a sunken wreck were used in the ship’s construction in AD 1628; and that a board from a 17th century panel painting on display at Kenwood House was imported from woodlands in the eastern Baltic. Basically never a dull moment!


View of Old London Bridge
View of Old London Bridge, by Claude de Jongh. The wood of this 17th century panel painting from Kenwood House was imported from woodlands in the Eastern Baltic. © English Heritage


In a single sentence, tell us what’s great about heritage science?

Heritage science has the ability to reveal amazing details about what people did and when, how they lived and what happened to them.


Five minutes with…Dr Lora Angelova, Newton International Fellow, University College London

What’s your background in heritage science?

I obtained a PhD in chemistry from Georgetown University, but focused my research on heritage science by having joint supervisors – professor of chemistry Richard Weiss at the university, and heritage scientist Barbara Berrie at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The focus of my work is to develop and study gel cleaning systems used in conservation treatments. Gels are sometimes used during the surface cleaning of a myriad of heritage objects (paintings, frames, sculptures, even paper). The idea is that by holding the cleaning liquid in a thick gel, the cleaning action can be more ‘controlled’, i.e. the liquid is less likely to penetrate into the artwork, or spread and drip on the surface (if the artwork is vertical). Gels can also be used to reduce the risks posed by rubbing a sensitive surface with a cottons swab during cleaning (for example, on gold leaf decorated frames), and to clean hard to reach places, like crevices beneath paint impasto.

What’s your role at the Materials Studies Laboratory at UCL?

I am in the second year of my Newton Fellowship (a postdoctoral fellowship awarded by the Royal Society to external researchers who would like to work in the UK). I work with Emma Richardson in a laboratory on the top floor of the History of Art Department – we are the only scientists in the department! It’s a very different environment from working in a chemistry lab, and I really love it.

There are a few instruments here, but the one I am primarily using in my research is called an NMR MOUSE (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Mobile Universal Surface Explorer). The instrument allows me to look into paint films, and trace how liquids from different types of gel cleaning systems move into the paint. I am studying several gels which are used by conservators and hoping to clarify how much ‘control’ of the cleaning liquid they actually present, relative to just using a cotton swab wetted with the cleaning liquid.

The NMR MoUSE (the tiny black box on the blue platform), in the process of scanning a paint-out which has just been treated with a gel.


What’s been the most exciting/challenging thing you’ve worked on recently?

Last year I worked with a conservator who was treating a painting which had been largely overpainted centuries after its production. The overpaint film was very stiff and had extensive craquelure – when he tried to soften the overpaint with a wetted cotton swab, the cleaning liquid would be drawn through the cracks into the original, sensitive paint layer beneath. We were hoping that by using a gel, we could slow this process, and soften and remove just the tough, top layer of overpaint. Although the gel did allow some control and prolonged exposure of the overpaint to the cleaning liquid, it was not sufficient to soften it without having some of the liquid penetrate through the cracks to the original paint beneath! The treatment was incredibly challenging, and the conservator opted to use a gel on some areas and cotton swabs on others.

Applying a fluorescent gel to a test-panel during my PhD – the fluorescent solvent can help us trace its penetration into the paint.


Who inspires you?

I really admire competitive and determined people who are passionate about what they do, both in their professional work and in their hobbies, especially if they’re women.

What do you love most about your job?

I get to combine the two things I was always most interested in as a child – science and art. I can make paint-outs in the morning and study their chemistry in the afternoon. I can look at the topography of a painting through a microscope – which feels almost like looking at the surface of the moon to me. Being a scientist can be demanding, of course, but as an academic, I get to choose what research I pursue, at what time I come in and leave work, and what the radio is playing in the lab. To top it off, I get to work with a very diverse group of people – conservators, art historians, artists, and scientists from a very wide range of disciplines.

In a single sentence, tell us what’s great about heritage science.

There is an inexhaustible supply of fascinating questions and problems to explore, and there is always a clear application which makes my work feel really worthwhile.

Five minutes with..Mark Kearney, ICON/HLF Intern (conservation of modern materials), Victoria & Albert Museum

What’s your background in heritage science?

My scientific background comes from my undergraduate degree. I have a BA(Hons) degree in Physics with Astrophysics; by the time I was in 4th year I knew I wanted to push my career into a different context. A professor, who works with Raman spectroscopy, told us about the work he was doing analysing pigments used in the Book of Kells. That short talk really grabbed my imagination so after graduating I did a Graduate Diploma in Conservation followed by an MSc in Professional Conservation. The studies I did after my undergraduate really helped me to understand the needs of the heritage industry (ethics, conservation materials & treatments, and the types of objects found in collections.) It was during my MSc I really started to develop my heritage science experience. I found that I was using the same techniques and theories I used in my undergraduate but instead of exploring new materials I was trying to understand heritage ones – the science was still the same though.

What’s your role at the V&A?

I work in the Conservation Science department alongside a number of other scientists whose backgrounds are in chemistry and physics. The department offers a range of analytical techniques to the museum like micro FTIR, Raman and micro XRF as well as advice on lighting and environmental conditions, pest management, and potential issues with new acquisitions. We work closely with curators and conservators advising them on the materials and techniques used within objects. We also carry out research into new conservation methods and materials so that the bench conservators have a solid scientific backing for their treatments. This is the type of work I’m currently undertaking – my internship is focused on looking at how best to clean modern materials. Plastic objects are surprisingly vulnerable and tricky to clean without damaging them. I am critically assessing how and with what we clean different plastics.

cleaning foamed polystyrene
The result of trying to ‘clean’ foamed polystyrene with acetone. Th acetone eats away at the plastic surface.© V&A


What’s been the most exciting/challenging thing you’ve worked on recently?

The most challenging thing I’ve worked on was taking some varnish samples from a Medal Cabinet that the museum had just acquired. The furniture conservator wanted to know if any modern varnish had been used in previous treatments of the object so together we removed some small samples from the surface using a scalpel. Training for sample removal on teaching collections isn’t exactly the same as the real thing; so when you’re faced with an object that is not only expensive but has been deemed so significant the government halts its export sale you can get a little nervous. But you trust your training and yourself. I’m really looking forward to coming back to the museum a few years down the line and being able to say I helped with that object.

Image One
A sample under magnification being prepared for FTIR analysis. The red substance is burned sienna, the glassy is amber.© V&A


Who inspires you?

I don’t really have a person who inspires me – really what makes me want to continue in heritage science are the objects (as utterly corny as that is to say!) I really enjoy researching objects, seeing how they were made, how they are degrading and how we can help keep them around for as long as possible.

What do you love most about your job?

How different each day can be. I get to interact with lots of different curators and conservators who have a great love of heritage and the institutional knowledge means you learn something new all the time. Physicists are  naturally inquisitive and creative and heritage science gives us a really novel way to apply our problem solving skills with the creativity of art and design.

In a single sentence, tell us what’s great bout heritage science.

Everything – rigorous science, fascinating objects, mentally challenging yet rewarding work, and something different every day –  what’s not to like?

Five minutes with…Julie Wertz, PhD student, University of Glasgow

What’s your background in heritage science?

I studied chemistry as an undergraduate and especially enjoyed the analytical aspect of the field. I’ve always loved working with textiles, so combining the two was a perfect fit for me. My project is funded by the University’s Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Scholarship Scheme, which promotes cross-disciplinary research. It’s given me the opportunity to work in a field I wasn’t really aware existed before.

What’s your role at the University of Glasgow?

I work mostly in the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History, which offers a two-year MPhil in Textile Conservation and a one-year MLitt in Technical Art History. I’m in the third year of a PhD studying the chemistry of Turkey red dyed textiles, so I get to work with the School of Chemistry and the University Archives, too. My supervisor at the Centre, Dr Anita Quye, is an experienced conservation scientist who has worked with regenerated fibres, plastics, and heritage textiles, to name a few. Although I’m not a conservator myself, I enjoy seeing what the conservation students are doing and the tutors are incredibly helpful and supportive of our research.

In any given day, I could be reviewing historical literature, designing an experiment, dyeing samples, writing, viewing archival textiles, performing spectroscopic analysis on textiles to learn how they may have been dyed, or reviewing experimental data. It’s amazing how much it varies from day-to-day.

Wertz 01 copy
DRIFTS analysis of pattern sample book from United Turkey Red collection, 1887 © Glasgow University Archives UGD 13/8/6


What’s been the most exciting/challenging thing you’ve worked on recently?

I’ve finally started to get good, solid results for my PhD work and it’s really exciting to see two years’ effort come together into something useful and interesting. Research can be frustrating because while one may predict an outcome, it’s not a certainty until the work is done. For me, that work felt like a lot of dead ends and confusion, but when it started to come together the satisfaction more than made up for the frustration! What made that happen for me was rethinking how Turkey red had been studied before, and then approaching it differently. Working with an applications specialist from Agilent, we analysed the textiles with diffuse reflectance infrared spectroscopy (DRIFTS) to study the surface chemistry. The results of this are the ‘whole picture’, whereas the results of an extraction can change depending on how it’s done. If what you’re looking for isn’t in the extract, or gets destroyed during the process, that’s not helpful! Infrared spectroscopy can’t tell us everything about Turkey red, but it also doesn’t damage the textiles so it’s great to have as an analytical tool.

Wertz 02
Painted design for Turkey Red print from the United Turkey Red collection, c.1850s © Glasgow University Archives UGD 13/8/4


Who inspires you?

Lately, I’ve been inspired by the people whose legacy I have been studying. Textile dyeing is incredibly nuanced and complicated. With natural dyes, which were all that was available prior to the mid-1850s, the amount of colour varies greatly and the water source must be as pure as possible to avoid unintended results. Turkey red is noteworthy for being especially complicated due to multiple repeated steps, extensive drying between treatments, and prior to industrialisation taking around a month to complete. It originated in India and was adopted in Turkey, hence the name, before coming to Western Europe in the mid-1700s. As a 21st-century chemist having spent years learning about this textile, I am truly impressed that such a durable, fade-resistant dye was developed by people who had fewer resources than we do now but possessed skills and knowledge that we’ve clearly lost today.

Turkey red replica
Removing a replica Turkey red reference sample from a dye bath © Julie H. Wertz


What do you love most about your job/studies?

I love getting to do different things, be it visiting an archive or talking to people about how I use chemistry in the arts. Studying heritage objects is exciting because it’s learning more about an object’s life, or how it was made, and that all comes together as a story. These stories can connect us to places, people, times, lost skills—and at the end of the day, who doesn’t like a good story?

In a single sentence, tell us what’s great about heritage science?

Heritage science gives us both information about the history of an item and how we may better preserve it, informing us of its past and creating the possibility for its legacy to continue into the future.

Five minutes with…Lisa McCullough, ICON Preventive Conservation Fellow, The National Trust

What’s your background in heritage science?

From the outset my background has been a mix between science and heritage/archaeology. I have a BSc in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences from Bournemouth University and a MRes in Heritage Science from UCL. I am currently developing my skill set further by working in a training capacity for the National Trust, as a Preventive Conservation Fellow. This position is co-ordinated by the Institute of Conservation and funded by the National Trust.

What’s you role at the National Trust?

My role is a training position based within the National Specialists section, which as you can guess from the name means I am in a very good position to learn a great deal from specialists in conservation and curatorship. I mainly focus on the environmental aspect of preventive conservation which involves using scientific techniques to monitor the relative humidity, temperature, light as well as pests in many of the National Trust properties. This monitoring, along with specific research projects then develops to inform and provide solutions which promote the care of our collections and prolong their life while still allowing them to be displayed to the public.

Baddesley Clinton UV
Monitoring light levels at Baddesley Clinton, where a removable pane of UV absorbing perspex has been fitted to reduce UV radiation. It doesn’t detract from the view of the stained glass and avoids the direct contact of adhesive UV films.


What’s been the most exciting/challenging thing you’ve worked on recently?

I am currently involved in a study to monitor colour change on a late 19th century tri-fold screen at Clandon Park which has historic photographs displayed within it.


Trifold screen
The 19th Century Tri-fold screen in the Library at Clandon Park with a variety of different photographic types (albumen, silver gelatine and platinum prints) and conditions


These photographs are a mixture of albumen, silver gelatine and platinum print, photographic processes developed in the latter half of the 19th Century. This is a long term project to determine why some of the photographs seem to be deteriorating at different rates – is it a natural deterioration due to the different processes used or are the environmental conditions such as light, also playing a part? A number of photographs were measured in exactly the same spot in 2013 and then again a year later to establish the amount of colour change experienced, the processing of the results is currently underway. This is exciting for me as I get to learn about historical photographic processes and I get to apply a scientific technique which will have a direct impact on the conservation management plan for this object.  I feel this is a perfect example of Heritage Science in action

Who inspires you?

I have a real admiration for those craftsmen of the past who had the skill and vision to create the amazing objects that myself and my colleagues work to conserve. The immense intricacy of these amazing collections becomes more and more apparent once you begin to analyse them. The best example of this was during my MRes research which involved the development of a non-destructive technique to predict the strength of wool yarns in historic tapestries.

Checking a blue wool dosimeter in a National Trust Property. The dosimeters are replaced annually and by analysing their colour change we can estimate the light levels that objects are exposed to.


I worked closely with Historic Royal Palaces science team, who funded my project, to investigate the Tudor tapestries  and I was constantly overwhelmed by the abilities of the weavers to work with such fine treads to create beautiful images on such a scale. What’s more, the fact that they are still hanging today is testament to the quality of the craftsmanship involved and one that should be celebrated and preserved.

What do you love most about your job?

I would say it is being able to help people. I get such satisfaction from answering a phone call from someone at a property and being able to advise them using my scientific knowledge to assess the issue objectively.

In a single sentence, tells what’s great about heritage science?

The ability to apply scientific techniques to real-life issues that really make a difference to how magnificent collections and buildings are preserved.

Five minutes with…Dr Ewan Hyslop, Head of Sustainability, Historic Scotland

What’s your background in heritage science?

I am a geologist, actually a ‘petrologist’ by training – that is the systematic description of different rock types. It involves a lot of peering down microscopes, but I’ve got to work on some very interesting things in my career, including projects related to disposal of radioactive waste, radon gas and mineral exploration. I came to heritage science as a career change when I did an MSc in Architectural Conservation in 2004 – it brought me into the fascinating world of stone decay and the conservation and repair of heritage structures.

Growing Old Gracefully, one of Historic Scotland’s 50 INFORM leaflets, explains to non-specialists about soiling and decay and why historic patina is sometimes good.


What’s your role at Historic Scotland?

I joined Historic Scotland in 2010 to manage our Heritage Science and Technical Buildings Research. I also oversee our Technical Education which involves dissemination of research through publications and events. Our work ranges widely from investigating the decay of various materials, looking at new forms of treatment and advising others on how to approach conserving heritage objects ranging from slates to sculptures, cannon-balls to castles. We can’t do all the research that is needed on our own so we have a huge amount of collaboration with organisations and universities throughout the UK and further afield.

climate change workshop
An interdisciplinary workshop with climate change experts to ‘brainstorm’ adaptation actions in different environments; the results captured by a professional graphic artist.


What’s been the most exciting or challenging thing you’ve worked in recently?

I was asked to set up a climate change programme for Historic Scotland. To me climate change is the biggest challenge threatening our heritage. Average rainfall in Scotland has increased by about 20% since the 1960s, and some parts have over 70% more winter rainfall. This is incredibly damaging, and we need to find better ways of protecting historic structures and sites. Increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events are also already happening and will all affect our heritage. Carbon reduction and energy efficiency is equally important – following the launch of our Climate Change Action Plan in 2012 we have managed to reduce carbon emissions from Edinburgh Castle by 30%!

ewan speaking 2014
Ewan speaking at the 2014 Historic Scotland energy efficiency conference ‘Towards a sustainable historic environment’.


Who inspires you?

When I go to our sites (we have 345 throughout Scotland) and I see how much visitors are fascinated by our heritage it reminds me how important our work is.

What do you love most about your job?

Two things: variety (every day is different), and the people (heritage science is full of people from different backgrounds – I meet some great characters!)

In a single sentence, tell us what’s great about heritage science?

It’s important work –heritage science makes a difference and ensures that some of the most valuable and beautiful objects from our past survive into the future.