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.