Following on from our blog about how heritage scientists are smashing stereotypes, we are delighted to introduce you to Dr Lisa Briggs, an underwater archaeologist and archaeological scientist at The British Museum. In this blog, she details her career:
For many years I was an underwater archaeologist working on shipwrecks. Armed with an undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Ancient History from the University of Edinburgh, I worked on every project I could, both on land and underwater, but began to specialise in shipwreck sites around the world. When the archaeological excavations I worked on uncovered artefacts of special interest, some were selected to be ‘samples’ destined for the ‘lab.’ The laboratory seemed like a mysterious place where, through spider webs and magic, incredible results and discoveries were achieved that allowed us to learn so much more about the artefacts we had uncovered. After 10 years of wondering what actually happened in these mysterious laboratories, I decided to return to school and have now completed an MPhil in Archaeological Science (Cambridge) and DPhil (PhD) in Archaeological Science (Oxford). I wish someone had told me earlier how much fun science can be!
My PhD work used DNA and organic residue analysis to study five shipwreck sites in the Mediterranean including finds from the Uluburun, Cape Gelidonya, and Kyrenia shipwrecks. Working on these artefacts was a dream come true. I now work in the Scientific Research Department of the British Museum where I use organic residue analysis to study pottery artefacts from a variety of sites. My favourite thing about my work is being intimately involved in the entire process. My background in archaeology allows me to visit sites and sample in-situ artefacts myself, before exporting these samples to our labs at the British Museum. This way, I can see exactly how the samples were selected, recovered, handled, stored, and analysed. For example, sunscreen is a common contaminant detected in pottery from archaeological sites in sunny countries because after applying sunscreen archaeologists will sometimes touch the pottery with bare hands when digging it up. When I am allowed to sample artefacts myself I wear powder-free nitrile gloves while digging, sterilise my sampling tools between artefacts, and store the samples in sterilised glass containers while they are awaiting export back to the UK. This way we can eliminate issues of contamination, from the loess to the lab!
My career path may not be the most common one for a heritage scientist, but I think I background in archaeology has allowed me to contextualise the artefacts that I study. In my spare time I enjoy speaking at events that encourage kids, especially girls, to get into STEM subjects by showing them how exciting science can be. At the same time, I advocate for the humanities by showing why archaeology and ancient history are so important for our understanding of what makes us human. Archaeology, I dig it!
Lisa is on Twitter and Instagram as @lisaarchaeology
British Science week are celebrating the diverse people and careers in science and engineering by encouraging STEM employees and researchers to share stories on social media about their day-to day work using #SmashingStereotypes and tagging @ScienceWeekUK. They want to showcase diverse and inspiring teams/individuals in STEM and are choosing some to highlight on their website. You can read those added so far here.
We are encouraging heritage scientists to use this opportunity to share their stories in order to make the field of heritage science more visible. For inspiration, you could read through our collated series of profiles of heritage scientists in training. The profiles highlight the various roles within heritage science and the multitude of way that individuals in the field start out their careers.
We have already had some fantastic examples of #SmashingSteroetyoes shared with us by members. The British Museum is showcasing each day the work of different members of their Scientific Research team. Follow @AntonyPSimpson to find out about roles including Colour Scientist, Underwater Archaeologist and X-ray Imaging Specialist. Some of the tweets are summarised below:
The National Galleries of Scotland has also shared with us a short film celebrating the bravery and dedication of Dr Elsie Inglis (1864 – 1917) who was a physician, surgeon, humanitarian, feminist, and pioneer of medical education for women. You can watch the film here.
If you do share your career stories for British Science Week 2022, please be sure to tag us (@HertSci_UK) and we will share them too. We hope to help better highlight the wide variety of careers in heritage science and the inspiring ways that heritage scientists are smashing stereotypes.
This year, British Science Week has developed activity packs on the theme of ‘Growth’. There are packs for primary schools, secondary schools and communities; all of which include engaging activities that explore all sorts of growth, including buildings, eco-friendly behaviours, animals and even how we can grow plants on Mars! You can access the 2022 resources here, as well as activity packs from previous British Science Weeks.
Other organisations who have been inspired to create their own educational resources for British Science Week include:
Twinkl create educational resources used by teachers, schools and educators across the world. This year, they have developed resources that support another theme of British Science Week 2022- smashing stereotypes! The KS1 and KS2 resources have been designed to help young learners think differently about what is means to be a scientist. They have also embedded British Science Week learning into their new app which uses Augmented Reality (AR).
The University of Derby is hosting STEM subject workshops that will support the British Science Week theme of ‘growth’. They will give students the opportunity to explore facilities, take on STEM challenges and discover career pathways.
University of St Andrews’ annual #ScienceDiscoveryDay will take place online on 19 March. Follow @StAndEngaged as they publish different fun and educational STEM related activities and videos every 15 minutes.
Heritage Science in schools
Our community working group has identified increasing engagement with heritage science at school age as a key outcome for a future skilled and diverse heritage science community. They have been collecting examples of how heritage science is being used in a range of programmes targeted at school-age children. You can read the examples here, some of which include:
The use of 3-D digital documentation of the three Forth Bridges to create a series of teaching packs
An activity pack from The National Archives to showcase the heritage science and conservation research happening in their Collection Care department
Heritage Science resources created by University of Cambridge Museums to help students develop research skills during A-Levels
In the future, we want to map existing resources to the national curriculum and work in partnership with others to fill gaps where heritage science can make a contribution to the curriculum. British Science Week 2022 provides a starting point for our members to help with this. Many schools have been calling for speakers to take part in their events during the week, with the hope of making pupils aware of the variety of careers available in science.
We would encourage members to think about volunteering to speak at such events in the future. There are many schemes that facilitate collaborations between schools and scientists, including:
A good example of this programme in action can be seen in this lecture recorded in February: STEM lecture for schools – Climate change: putting the dead to work Jess McCoy (STEM Ambassador and PhD candidate at Northumbria University) gave a talk that explored the link between Palynology and climate change. It was organised by Denbigh School in Milton Keynes.
This initiative is an online, student-led STEM enrichment activity. It connects school students with scientists through energetic real-time text-based chats.
Such schemes provide an excellent opportunity for heritage scientists to make school-age children aware of the role of heritage science in society and the variety of careers available within the sector. This would tie into our strategic objective of creating a future skilled and diverse heritage science community.
You can learn more about British Science Week 2022 here.
British Science Week 2022 is taking place this year between 11-20 March. It will be a ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths with many events and activities taking place across the UK.
Below we have created a list of events that we think might be of interest to our members. In particular, we have rounded up events that align to the five societal challenges that were identified by our research working group to inspire and encourage connections between heritage science research and five issues of importance to society. They are Sustainable development; Climate emergency; Improved wellbeing; Equality and inclusivity; and Digital society. Events include:
This online lecture, given by Dr Tony Harris from the University of South Wales, will explore how Green Infrastructure can deliver huge benefits to mitigate and adapt to climate change, for quality of life and for environmental benefits including natural flood management solutions.
This online session from The Open University will explore the barriers for non-sighted and sight impaired practitioners to gaining equal access to digital skills. It will detail how the Makeactive-UK project is working to enable non-sighted and sight impaired users to work alongside their sighted peers to enable collaboration in the virtual world.
There are also events happening that are not directly related to the societal challenges but are still relevant and helpful to heritage scientists. These include:
The British Science Association and De Montfort University will host the Festival across the city of Leicester. Events will shine a light on cutting-edge science, as well as the more practical impacts research and innovation have on people’s daily lives.
This family activity is inspired by the ground-breaking research in The World of Stonehenge exhibition and will help curious little minds to have a go at looking, listening, investigating, problem solving and creating – just like a museum scientist.
You can find out more information about British Science Week 2022 here.
Heritage Science is the use of science and technology to understand and care for cultural heritage, and support engagement or interaction with it. As we’ve shown in the blog posts over British Science Week 2021 heritage science can take many different forms such as using powerful microscopes, 3D laser-scanning, x-rays and more.
We’ve been looking at examples of how these wonderful techniques and technologies can be used in learning programmes aimed at school-age children and are starting to share some of the examples we’ve found on our website here.
Our final blog for this year’s British Science Week highlights these resources in the hope that it will inspire you to let us know of other examples that you know about. Over time we want to create a resource that shows how heritage science can support many different parts of the curriculum – and share our enthusiasm for the #HeritageScience with teachers and pupils.
Heritage Science at The National Archives Activity Pack
The National Archives has created a family activity pack for home and in the classroom to showcase the heritage science and conservation research happening in their Collection Care Department.
The activity pack was developed by the Collection Care and Education teams to celebrate British Science Week 2021. The intention of the pack is to act as a gateway to showcase heritage science and conservation research happening behind the scenes at The National Archives in an accessible way. In the pack you can find two activities: ‘How to Make Berry Ink’, where children can learn how to make blueberry ink and ‘How to Make Invisible Ink’, where children can learn how to send secret messages using lemon juice. It is hosted on their family activities webpages and is designed for home and the classroom.
Outdoor archaeological learning
Forestry and Land Scotland has created an Outdoor Archaeological Learning portal to encourage young people to be inspired by Scotland’s rich cultural heritage and historic environment. It includes a collection of resources, articles, and activities to encourage place-based learning. They are designed to be used by teachers, youth group leaders and archaeological educators. Through asking young people to record, discuss and interpret an archaeological site, the resources help them develop critical thinking skills, creativity, confidence, and teamwork skills. Resources are available on various archaeological topics including: Dendrochronology; Recumbent stone circles; The Picts; The First Foresters; Dun Deardail; and Into the Wildwoods. Access the resources here.
Go Forth and Discover! Digital game
A downloadable game- based learning activity has been developed from 3D digital documentation of the historic Forth Bridges to educate school children about their construction. The activity was created to match the social studies curriculum taught in Scottish schools and was designed by the Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualisation LLP (a partnership between Historic Environment Scotland and The Glasgow School of Art). You can access the freely available game here.
Do you know of any other examples of heritage science being incorporated into learning programmes for children of school age? Please add them to our online noticeboard here.
We will also continue to add new case studies to our website. Look out for them here.
This post continues on from our last post ‘Back to the Future’ which explored how the Natural History Museum developed remote access to some of its laboratory equipment during lockdown. Here, Dr Joyce Townsend from Tate, describes her experience of using the equipment from home.
As I spend another groundhog day at home during the third lockdown and imminent first anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic, remote access for running instruments at the Natural History Museum (NHM) seems like a concept that was developed just in time. I’ve been an electron microscope user and driver at the NHM for some 10 years now – certainly long enough to have used 2 or 3 models of variable pressure SEM (scanning electron microscope), two software packages, and three operating systems. My samples consist mainly of paint fragments on self-adhesive carbon stubs, interspersed with larger and more complex paint samples mounted in resin blocks and exposed as cross-sections, and a few outliers such as canvas, metals and plastics. Since they come mainly from artworks, anything large enough on the stub to spot by eye in a good light – provided such a small specimen is also representative – is the right size for SEM-EDX. I do sometimes seek assistance with imaging of canvas, or newly-applied and solvent-rich paint (high vacuum would make short work of its topography!), but in most cases I am more interested in elemental analysis to prove or disprove identifications of inorganic pigments and extenders from optical microscopy, and sometimes to reveal unexpected elements. High-resolution imaging is not usually my aim for many samples. A knowledge of historic pigments used in the west, and of a great variety of historic manufacturing processes, enables good inferences to be made about the compounds in the samples, in nearly all cases. My samples are at least fairly robust, and there are no issues with shelf life or storage temperature, as I deliver them to a masked figure emerging from the premises on freezing mornings.
My fellow conservation scientists and all my other colleagues with humanities backgrounds were vastly impressed when I announced, ‘If you can control a Mars rover from Houston, Texas, you can surely drive an SEM from across central London’. Then I wondered whether Tate systems would ever communicate seamlessly with NHM systems. The set-up was lengthy and took a day of effort, and the process of logging in through two opposing firewalls is never fast – but it does work. I have always established the connection from my usual workplace whilst logged into both systems, which makes for a complicated workspace on a large single screen. It does enables instant storage of the snipped or screenshot spectra and locator images into PowerPoint format on our own system, ready to be dropped into artwork reports and interpreted with other data. This data capture is far more time-efficient that the different workflows I have used in the NHM processing lab over the years. There’s an additional big advantage in being able to access other data and artwork information instantly through the Tate system whenever I need more sample information, which cannot be done in South Kensington without hogging a number of workstations at one time to make it possible.
Running the SEM remotely now works very smoothly, in fact. This month I have used it for two full days. The JEOL IT500 has clearly been designed for the purpose: its stage movement and auto functions for focussing and brightness/contrast make it far more possibly to drive the SEM from one keyboard and no joysticks than it would have been for earlier models. It helps to pre-plan the sample holder map to include groups of samples of the same height and stub size, and to ask for large groups of samples to be placed on the larger holder that fits in the chamber. The filament may still occasionally fail in the midst of analysing the most interesting sample of the day, but the support team is on call (now by Teams as well as e-mail and mobile) and they will replace it and refocus to average sample height. Remote training for new users must be more challenging for them, but that sounds perfectly feasible too.
Written by Dr Joyce H Townsend, Senior Conservation Scientist, Tate
Our next post for British Science Week 2021 is from Dr. Alex Ball of the Natural History Museum. His post focuses on the challenges and opportunities presented by a move to provide remote access to laboratory equipment during lockdown.
In the (almost) 30 years since I joined the NHM as a PhD student, the one constant has been that the electron microscope labs were a resource that you had to book in advance and physically turn up to use your session on the microscopes. SEM sessions were typically a half day at a time before you had to give up the microscope to the next user, or perhaps you’d get lucky and were able to work on until the end of the day. The rules were simple, you could have two sessions booked in advance and you could book another session once the first session had started.
We worked like this to prevent users from block booking a microscope for days on end as everyone deserved an equal chance on the instruments.
As the equipment got more and more sophisticated and could be programmed, it was not unusual for users to set up programmed imaging or analysis sessions to run overnight, or even over the whole weekend if enough samples could be loaded and programmed in advance.
A very few, experienced users were authorised to work late and even to come in at weekends, under the proviso that if anything went wrong, they had to follow their training, switch the instrument to a safe mode, let the staff know what had happened and then go home.
Then in March everything changed.
With just a few days’ notice, the Imaging and Analysis Core Research Laboratory (IAC) staff had to place the whole laboratories into some sort of safe mode, shut down instruments where possible and arrange to leave the labs, for weeks, months, who knew? Instruments that had never been shut down for more than two days were suddenly idle. Would they restart? Could they be reanimated? No-one knew.
A few staff came in one or two days a week to check for problems and to ensure that all was well, but apart from that, the corridors were dark and silent. The scene more like a science fiction horror movie set than the bright and lively place we were used to.
When we finally returned, a few at a time, we had the mammoth task of restarting all the instruments, testing and recalibrating, booking in missed service visits, fixing stuff that had failed and then figuring out how to make all of this kit accessible again.
Throughout lock-down we’d been attending remote conferences and the question everyone was asking was “How do we get back to work safely?” The community spirit in those meetings was really encouraging. The first meeting I attended included participants from all over the world, including the USA, Portugal, France, Germany and Australia to name a few. Solutions came thick and fast, so we weren’t having to go it alone, we could ask each other for advice and for help.
For the Electron Microscopy unit, this gave us the confidence to try something we had never allowed in the past and in fact had not even really contemplated: remote access to the instruments. Starting from what we’d learned and discussed with other labs and with the NHM’s IT team, we set up the instruments to allow remote desktop access and then set to work testing and practising. First from one computer to another in the same room, then from an office to the SEM (scanning electron microscope) within the lab and then finally with one staff member at home and another providing support in the lab.
At each stage we documented our findings, worked out safe ways to work and moved on. As soon as the financial accounts reopened we ordered new sample holders, so that instead of loading six or eight samples, we could load 25 or 50. We were no longer planning to confine users to half a day, but contemplating sessions lasting 2 days or more.
Finally, after about two weeks, when we felt that we’d completed enough testing, we started to reach out to the users. We had our priority user list provided by Science Group and so we set about contacting them, scheduling training, acquiring samples, or planning for samples to be prepared. We trained a few of them to safely use an instrument from their home office, how to control a microscope which was normally controlled with two joysticks and a complex control panel with just the mouse and keyboard they had. We simplified the user interfaces so that instead of two screens, they only needed one.
Samples get dropped off in the IAC corridor, or are collected from offices and are quarantined for a few days, photographed and then put aside until needed, or sent across to the newly reopened mineral prep labs for preparation.
Every case seemed to be different. What was the minimum network speed required to control the microscope, move the sample and focus the image? How did we control two different computers from a single laptop so that we could operate both the SEM and the EDX system? How did we accommodate Apple users? Could we allow external users remote access to the instruments?
For the past few weeks, we’ve been reinventing the labs. It’s clear that the relationship between the users and the staff has changed. Remote training has proven to be surprisingly easy, provided the network connection is good and Teams or Windows Remote Assistance is playing nicely. On the flipside, when things go wrong, it can take days for us to find the solution.
We are finding users can fit their instrument sessions in around their lives in lockdown, so being able to load one to two days’ worth or samples is a huge advantage. Not everything works and patience is required, but we’ve found that it’s just about possible for us to supervise two or three users.
Our users are also processing their data remotely. Not only have they been accessing the instruments, but they’ve been accessing the workstations remotely as well. The micro-CT lab led the way in this by opening up their workstations right from the beginning of the lock down. We also have to give the instrument suppliers credit for being so willing to work with us and advise us on how best to manage this and also for making some pretty expensive pieces of software available to home users right through to the end of September.
We have so few active users at present, but we feel just as busy. Meeting someone you haven’t seen for months in person is a shock, but also a welcome distraction. There are still people I am working with that I’ve never met, other than from the other side of a webcam and screen.
There’s a lot of work still to complete and I have a lot of concerns over how we are going to teach the next generation of microscope users. Some people I’ve worked with over these past two months haven’t even seen the instrument that they’ve now spent days using.
This new way of working is making me wonder what the future will be like. Will some of our visitors be able to access instruments remotely, so removing the need for them to come to the Museum at all? Could this usher in a new era of accessibility for those who would normally not have the money or opportunity to travel to the UK and to access these lab facilities?
What are the security implications for our instruments and network?
How do we get data to users, remember the files can be really large and how will they process them? What additional hardware do home users need to work effectively? At work I use two screens. At home I have the luxury of a decent sized screen, but many are working just from a laptop screen. Remote support for us has heavily relied on mobile phones, headsets and webcams. Teams, Whatsapp and even plain phone calls have all played a role in getting connected and supported.
There is a new initiative, “The Future Ways of Working” which will be looking into this for the future, but it’s clear that a lot of these solutions need to come sooner rather than later. For now, if users need access, we do our best to make it happen.
Written by Dr Alex Ball of the Natural History 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.
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 Garnetlaser) 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.
Written by Dr Moira Bertasa – Research Assistant in Laser Conservation Science in the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum (email@example.com)
M. Cooper and J. Larson (1998). Laser Cleaning in Conservation: An Introduction. A Butterworth-Heinemann Title
Written by Lucia Burgio, Senior Scientist, Victoria and Albert Museum
As part of NHSF’s contribution to British Science Week 2021 we’re sharing examples of heritage science from a range of different organisations. This blog post features work at the V&A, with help from the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery.
What do you do when a rare museum object suddenly springs a surprise on you? Easy: you investigate, and then call in the cavalry.
This is exactly what happened at the Victoria and Albert Museum with a seventeenth-century South American table cabinet, the first object of its kind on display in a UK public collection (Fig 1).
Why was this table cabinet unique? Because it was made using materials and techniques centred around mopa mopa, an indigenous resin from the Andes. The traditional method of preparation of this resin involves chewing it as if it were bubble gum, stretching it and applying it on the surface of objects. The result is a lacquer-like finish, glossy, beautiful and very, very durable.
The scientific investigation at the V&A produced the first bombshell: the white pigment used everywhere on the cabinet was calomel, mercury(I) chloride. In the past calomel was well known as an alleged medicinal remedy for all sorts of illnesses, from syphilis to constipation. But as an art material? Certainly not. What a discovery! We re-christened it ‘mercury white’.
The second bombshell fell when we X-rayed the object: a grim reaper suddenly appeared on the lid (Fig 2) – this must have been painted on the object first, and then covered in the second half of the 20th century with a less frightening decorative scheme.
Enter the cavalry: I picked up the phone and called our friends at the Natural History Museum, across the road.
Full disclosure: the largest cultural heritage institutions in the UK have their own dedicated team of scientists, who can rely on many pieces of in-house scientific equipment. But no single institution has every possible type of scientist and kit, so we rely on one another to lend a hand (or type of expertise, or equipment) when the need arises.
And so it was that the mopa-mopa cabinet went for an outing and crossed the road to undergo a micro-CT scan at the NHM. The results were jaw-dropping: the hidden, original scheme was revealed. Our NHM colleagues also verified the crystallinity of the calomel on one of our samples, using their micro-X-ray diffraction equipment.
It was then time to call other colleagues, this time at the National Gallery, and get their help and equipment to map the distribution of mercury white within the hidden scheme. Lo and behold, the grim reaper, with its bits and bobs, had indeed been painted with mercury white too (Fig 3).
Moral of the story: when there is a good relationship between different heritage institution, and capacity can be found to help each other out, the results can be very rewarding. Together we can unlock the secrets of the objects in our collections, understand more about their materiality, history and context, and have the tools to care for them and preserve them for the enjoyment of present and future generations.
Burgio L., Melchar D., Strekopytov S., Peggie D.A., Melchiorre Di Crescenzo M., Keneghan B., Najorka J., Goral T., Garbout A., Clark B.L.; Identification, characterisation and mapping of calomel as ‘mercury white’ a previously undocumented pigment from South America, and its use on a barniz de Pasto cabinet at the Victoria and Albert Museum, (2018) Microchemical Journal, 143, pp. 220-227. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.microc.2018.08.010
On Monday 9th March a group of primary school teachers spent a day working with museum educators and research scientists from the Fitzwilliam Museum and Hamilton Kerr Institute (HKI) to explore different approaches to looking at museum objects and images.
This is the last blog of our British Science Week series and was written by Kate Noble, Paola Ricciardi and Rosanna Evans, with many thanks to Spike Bucklow and to the eight enthusiastic teachers who spent a day at the museum.
Background to the Project
The workshop formed part of the ‘Ways of Seeing’ research project, which aims to stimulate public interest in – and engagement with – the materials and processes involved in the making of objects in museum collections, by bringing together research on the development of visual literacy, non-invasive analytical protocols, visual perception and artists’ techniques. The project was designed with reference to a report, published by the Wellcome Trust in 2014, which identified the need to make science fun and exciting and to support pupils to develop better enquiry skills. It also addresses the need for more high-quality subject-specialist Continuing Professional Development opportunities for primary school teachers in both Science and Art. The teachers’ workshop provided the opportunity to test ideas for a museum-based session for KS2 schoolchildren, aimed at supporting the development of analytical skills essential to both artistic and scientific investigation.
Ways of Seeing builds on the success of Inspire, an exhibition of children’s art made in response to a 15th century panel painting of Cupid and Psyche by Florentine artist Jacopo del Sellaio. An extraordinary 3800 children took part in the project and a selection of their work is currently on display alongside the original painting at the Fitzwilliam Museum. While local schools and teachers were studying the painting in school, the museum’s own heritage scientists and painting conservators were asked to undertake their own technical and scientific research on the panel. Findings from these analyses are included in the exhibition, most prominently as part of a new AR app that invites visitors to look ‘beyond the surface’ at the materials and processes of the Renaissance artist.
Working with the teachers
The session started with an in-depth exploration of Cupid and Psyche in the exhibition gallery, which included drawing, looking at and learning about the painting with museum educator Kate Noble. The teachers also had a chance to look at infrared and X-ray images of the painting, trying to interpret their meaning and brainstorming about the scientific topics that could be discussed with children based on these images.
Spike Bucklow, Director of Research at the HKI, gave us a tour of his Sharpening Perceptions exhibition, which features original paintings alongside historically accurate copies produced by the HKI’s post-graduate students as part of their training in paintings conservation. From the nature and geographic origin of pigments and paint binders – a range of both organic and inorganic, natural and synthetic compounds – to the importance of colour temperature and direction for the light used to illuminate a painting, there was a lot more science to talk about than many of us had thought possible!
We also spent time in the Museum’s Analytical Lab, where Senior Research Scientist Paola Ricciardi talked about a range of non-invasive imaging and analytical methods, which she uses to investigate colours and pigments. Back in the Education Studio, Paola gave a practical demonstration of some of these methods and got an amazed ‘ooooohhh’ from the whole group when demonstrating the three-dimensional texture of paint on a tiny portrait miniature – no more than 4 cm across!
These conversations then fed into a practical session led by museum educator Rosanna Evans, where the teachers worked in small groups, experimenting with paint-making as a form of scientific enquiry. They ground locally sourced earths to make a yellow pigment and tested mixtures made with different paint media (water, egg white and egg yolk), applying them over a range of different surfaces. The best – or, for someone, the worst – part of this process was the screeching sound made by the coarse earth being ground with a glass muller – who would have thought that particle size could ‘speak’ to us so loud and… clear?
The day finished with a stimulating discussion about how these activities and approaches might support the teaching of art and science in primary schools.
The day couldn’t have gone better. The lively conversations we had with the teachers and their enthusiastic feedback confirms what we thought all along: truly collaborative cross-disciplinary research has immense potential to be the starting point for developing user-led projects with practitioners, and to explore different pathways to impact for object-based research. In the words of one of the teachers, “I don’t think there is any part of the curriculum that you couldn’t bring into this!” We are now looking forward to inviting the teachers back to the museum with their classes in the Summer term to take part in our new Ways of Seeing workshops for KS2 children.