Dr Elke Cwiertnia, Conservation Scientist at The National Archives, introduces a recently completed project that uses heritage science to shed light on the use of wax seals as communication devices.
Although wax seals have been widely studied with regard to their iconography, their materiality and importance as communication devices are still not fully understood. The National Archives (UK), ‘Wax Seals in Context’ project addressed unanswered questions concerning the study of medieval wax seals by investigating their materiality, manufacture and use allowing us to understand better the making and meaning of this important medium of medieval communication.
Image: wax seal of Henry of Lancaster (TNA: E26 / A 60, B series cord E)
Using heritage science (visual examination, material analysis such as XRF), reproduction of recipes for sealing wax and archival evidence the project has focused on English royal and governmental seals of the 12th and 13th centuries.
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 . 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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. The market value of this metadata can easily be immeasurable.
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? 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.
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”. 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.
Premise 9: Heritage science is proof that there is no world of Two Cultures . 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.
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.
 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.
Welcome to the first post of our new blog! We’ve launched it to coincide with British Science Week (http://www.britishscienceweek.org) to promote the role of the national heritage science forum and the work of heritage scientists. We’ll be profiling a different heritage scientist throughout science week, in a ‘five minutes with…’ series of posts to answer those burning questions – Who are they, heritage scientists? Where do they work? What do they do? What are they like?
To kick us off, five minutes with the NHSF’s co-chairs, Nancy Bell, Head of Collection Care at The National Archives and May Cassar, Professor of Sustainable Heritage at University College London
What is heritage science?
The term’ heritage science’ is used to encompass all technological and scientific work that can benefit the heritage sector, whether through improved management decisions, enhanced understanding of significance and cultural values or increased public engagement.
The National Heritage Science Forum was set up in 2013 to address the recommendations of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry on Science and Heritage and to implement the objectives of the National Heritage Science Strategy. The Forum provides a platform to support the policy, research and professional needs of institutions engaged in heritage science. It brings together many disciplines under the wide-ranging, interdisciplinary heritage science umbrella. Through working together, Forum members address the research and practice needs of institutions interested in or engaged with heritage science. http://heritagescienceforum.org.uk/about.php
What kind of organisations participate in NHSF?
The Forum currently has 17 members which represent leading UK organisations active in the field of heritage science. A strength of NHSF is that it brings together the producers and users of heritage science research to maximise the impact of that research, to share resources, knowledge and skills, and to speak as one voice about heritage science. The 17 members include major heritage organisations and academic institutions. A full list is available on the NHSF website, http://heritagescienceforum.org.uk/member-institutions.php where you’ll also find information about joining NHSF http://heritagescienceforum.org.uk/join-us.php.
Can individuals and people who don’t work at heritage organisations get involved?
NHSF is keen to promote understanding of, and involvement in, heritage science. Indeed one of its priorities for 2015 is to identify ways of working with communities, through partnerships with other organisations, to turn its ambition of citizen heritage scientists into a reality.
Whilst only organisations can be members, there are other ways for individuals to get involved with NHSF, for example by following us on Twitter or Facebook.
What’s the most important message you want to convey about heritage science?
Heritage science is critical to our understanding of good curatorial and conservation practice and to improving the understanding and preservation of our shared heritage. Whether policy maker, research institution, user of heritage science research or an individual who cares about the long-term future of heritage we have an opportunity now to work together to create an environment in which creative ideas and innovative techniques can be applied to the past for the benefit of its future.