Heritage science: culture, collaboration, career

Transcript of presentation given by Josep Grau-Bové at joint National Heritage Science Forum (NHSF) and Icon Heritage Science group events to scope the networking and career development needs of heritage science students and Early Career Researchers, March 2021 

That was the title of my presentation. We are here because we are heritage scientists. What does it mean, to be a heritage scientist?

We have the fortune and the misfortune of giving shape to a new field of science. Because heritage science is new, in many ways a 21st century science, and in many other ways, it is old, as old as curiosity.

If you chart the history of the scientific study of heritage, do you know what you will find? You will see that every time a new scientific method is invented, someone has the idea to point it at a work of art. It happened with the microscope, the synchrotron, structural simulation, pollutant monitoring, everything.

Robert Hooke, Micrographia, London, 1665, Scheme 1, showing images of a woven textile.

We are here because we share this fascination. This ancient magnetic attraction. However, while the curiosity of heritage scientists has been here forever, the field is new in other ways.

It has been in the last decade that we have come together, in academic journals, in conferences, in research programmes, in the eyes of government funding, in representative bodies such as the NHSF and ICON HG.  And when we come together, we discover that there are links between our isolated individual curiosities. We share questions, and problems. And it that sense, we are a new science, that is just discovering its questions and its problems.

I like to think a heritage scientist is like a Hobbit. Humble, brave and stubborn, an explorer that always remembers home. Humble because in our field, we always need the expertise of others. Collaboration depends on admitting that we don’t know all the answers. Brave because you need to be crazy to step into the unknown, in an area where we’ll spend most of the time out of your comfort zone. An area where the future job market depends on our collective success. Stubborn because there are no established ways of doing things. We need to make our own way, and stick with it.

“This is it. If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been”

And finally, also like a hobbit from the shire, it doesn’t matter how far we go from our initial training, all heritage scientists remember who they are: chemists, conservators, architects, psychologists, engineers, art historians, social scientists – and this identity defines how we work.

“Heritage Scientist” is not a permanent identity. Many are not heritage scientists forever. And that’s another strength of our field. Some of the best heritage scientists I have met, have also made contributions outside of heritage. Most of us have come to heritage after degrees or even PhDs that had nothing to do with it. Some of us will move on to tackle other problems. This diversity of interests is common. It is even necessary. Because how else can we study such a complex array of scientific problems?

The question is, while we are here, how shall we organise ourselves? Solving this riddle has two parts. One is how we organise our ideas. We cannot solve this one today. That will require 10 years of discussion. The other part is how we organise our conversations as a group. This is the one we want to brainstorm today. The scientific ideas will naturally follow.

Networking and support for heritage science students and early career researchers: findings from two scoping sessions held in March 2021

Caroline Peach, National Heritage Science Forum

The Strategic Framework for Heritage Science in the UK is built around an outcomes framework and one of its three high-level goals is “A skilled and diverse heritage science community (workforce and volunteers) that is well placed to respond creatively to future change”.

At NHSF, our Communities working group focuses on delivering against the underpinning outcomes that will help to achieve this goal. It brings people together from across its member organisations to pool their strengths, knowledge and networks to address shared challenges in the sector.

In March 2021 we worked with the Icon Heritage Science group to run two workshops to scope the networking and support needs of heritage science students and early career researchers. For NHSF, these workshops are a step towards the strategic framework outcome of ‘Recognition of heritage science as an attractive career’. They also build on findings of research commissioned in 2017 to understand some of the opportunities and constraints associated with a career in heritage science (which highlighted the need for networks to strengthen the identity of heritage science, and a platform to enable young professionals to interact, share challenges, and develop skills).

We wanted to ask heritage science students and early career researchers about the support they need to pursue a career in heritage science and so our two online workshops included introductions to the work of NHSF and the Icon Heritage Science group, a reflection on heritage science as a culture and a career (see our next blog post for more on this) but for the most part, the sessions focussed on facilitated discussion groups asking:

– What are the needs of heritage science students and ECRs?

– How can NHSF/Icon Heritage Science group or other bodies help to address these needs?

– What are the next steps for the heritage science community?

Forty-eight people took part in the two sessions and contributed thoughtfully, enthusiastically and constructively to a wide-ranging conversation about what is needed and how it might be provided.

What did people identify as needs?

The post-it record of the breakout groups is shared below, and overall the main needs can be summarised as:

  • Knowledge of who’s doing what and where (a directory?) – to help develop a picture of the broad heritage science landscape, support making research connections and building networks.
  • Mentorship and help understanding career pathways and opportunities.
  • The opportunity to present projects and research and hear about work by others.
  • Training opportunities focused on specific (technical) topics.
  • Case studies of how people have entered the field and their career pathways.
  • A source of information on job posting and training opportunities.

Both NHSF and the Icon Heritage Science group are now working out how we can best provide support.

From NHSF’s perspective, we have some things in place already that address some of the needs, for example:

Profiles of heritage scientists in training and their experience of entry into the field.

Five minutes with… (a series of blog posts asking heritage scientists about their jobs)

Training opportunities in heritage science.

Though we fully recognise that these pages need to be updated – if anyone is willing to volunteer to help us do this, please get in touch!

Jobs, conferences and training opportunities are shared via Twitter (@HertSci_UK) and in our monthly e-newsletter which you can sign up to here: https://www.heritagescienceforum.org.uk/news/subscribe

Next, we’ll work with the people who have signed up to stay in touch on this topic and help us address the identified needs. High on the list will be agreeing which platform will work best to support the information-sharing and networking.

Thank you to everyone who took part in the scoping sessions. If you’d like to join our email group on this topic please contact Caroline Peach administrator@heritagescienceforum.org.uk