We are creating a unified UKRI website that brings together the existing research council, Innovate UK and Research England websites.
If you would like to be involved in its development let us know.

From space technology to 'heritage smells'

In the UK, we’re very good at understanding and conserving our past. From Faraday surveying the effects of London grime on the paintings in the National Gallery, to research on the environmental conditions in Welsh slate mines, where many of Britain’s cultural treasures were kept for safekeeping during the Second World War, the UK has long been a leading player in heritage science.

But fears that we were losing our pole position prompted the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee to recommend, in 2006, the setting-up of a dedicated programme of funding for science and heritage research, to be supported by the Research Councils. And this led, in 2007, to the launch of the five-year Science and Heritage Programme, which was jointly funded to the tune of £6.9 million by the AHRC and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The programme’s rationale was straightforward. The stuff that makes up our cultural heritage – fragile as it is – faces many challenges, ranging from intensive use for leisure, education and tourism, to the effects of climate change. And heritage science can increase our understanding of the materials that make up our historic buildings, monuments and artworks, and so help us to extend their use.

The programme was led by Professor May Cassar, who is Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage. But while the contribution of science in this area is pretty obvious, she says, what’s less immediately apparent is the vital role played by the arts and humanities. And yet, ‘in many cases, the research that we supported was led by arts and humanities questions.’

Picking up the pieces

A good example of how this worked is the project Representing Re-Formation: Reconstructing Renaissance Monuments. Project leader Philip Lindley, Professor of Art History at the University of Leicester, remembers: ‘I was talking to my brilliant colleague, the late George Fraser, Director of the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre. I was chatting about some work that I wanted to do, trying to create a virtual reconstruction of some tomb monuments [including those of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and his wife, that had been taken apart in the sixteenth century, and the pieces scattered.’

‘We built a team involving physicists from the Space Research Centre,’ says Philip Lindley, ‘as well as museologists, archaeologists, computer scientists and physicists at the University of Leicester, as well as historians at Merton College, Oxford and at the Yale Centre for British Art, collaborating with curators, conservators, and education and imaging specialists employed by English Heritage and the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service. We used 3D laser scanning of the monuments and the fragments that had come to light. And through it we’ve been able to show what the monument originally looked like – it’s as if the Reformation never happened.’

3d scan of east end of 3rd duke's tomb, framlingham
3d scan of east end of 3rd duke's tomb, Framlingham

‘I’d thought that art history had nothing in common with what the space team did,’ says Philip Lindley, ‘but it turned out that many of our challenges are similar. At the same time, they brought new approaches: they routinely asked, for example, how much each of the surviving pieces of the monument weighed. They’re used to calculating the mass of objects, but we hadn’t considered this: and of course, you know that pieces of stone that are more than two men can lift are unlikely to have been moved far from their original position.’

The project led to an exhibition at Thetford Priory, where the fragments of the monument were found, and this led in turn to visitor numbers increasing. There have also been a number of spin-offs from the research: 3-D laser scanning company Europac, for example, have gone on to develop a specialist scanning business working in the arena of culture, arts and design. Enigma Interactive, meanwhile, produced an app for Thetford Priory, enabling visitors to move virtual pieces of the monuments around, and see how they fit together: they have now developed a proof-of-concept app for Boughton House, enabling users to ‘walk back’ into the lost formal gardens of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Standard bearer

From 'Impact of Cross-Disciplinary work in heritage manufacturing - a productive matrix'
From 'Impact of Cross-Disciplinary work in heritage manufacturing - a productive matrix'

The practical achievements of the Science and Heritage Programme include the development of a new environmental standard for cultural heritage collections. Nancy Bell is Head of Collection Care at the National Archives. As a result of the project in which she was involved, she says, the guidance for storing and moving fragile artefacts is now presented ‘in a new way, based on research, and on the underpinning science. It takes more of a risk-based approach, giving an idea of the likelihood of certain outcomes, rather than making rigid prescriptions. The end result is that we have freed up the movement of cultural objects between different locations, making it easier to include them in exhibitions, for example.’ This research led to the production of a BSI Publicly Accessible Standard, PAS 198:2012 Specification for managing environmental conditions for cultural collections and to the award to Nancy Bell of the Plowden Gold Medal 2015.

Nancy Bell also worked on the Mind the Gap project, which looked at hindrances to collaboration between heritage science researchers and the people who work directly with cultural objects. ‘Encouraging co-operation in this area,’ she says, ‘is largely about managing expectations. We have to make practitioners understand, in particular, that research won’t necessarily give you a defined outcome quickly. There are lots of examples of innovation in heritage science in the Sixties, for example, which are only starting to pay off now. Timelines can be long.’

Heritage smells

The Heritage Smells project involved experts in chemistry, physics and statistics, as well as in heritage science and sensor technology, in developing diagnostic olfactory tools for heritage science. By 'sniffing' the air, these delicate devices are able to answer questions about the composition, condition and stability of objects, giving curators important information about how items should be stored, displayed and preserved in the long term (as well as protecting the health of people who come into contact with them). The sensors that were developed are relatively low-cost, and they are hand-held, meaning that they’re easy to use, and within the means even of smaller institutions and private collectors.

Heritage sounds

Disintergrating rubber from 'Heritage Smells'
Disintegrating rubber from 'Heritage Smells'

Among a number of Science and Heritage projects that looked at intangible aspects of heritage, two were focused on acoustics – how monuments were designed to sound, and may have sounded in the past. One, the Improving Heritage Experience through Acoustic Reality and Audio Research, or I-HE(AR)^2 [I Hear Too] project, involved a programme of sound works, installations, demos and interactive audio events held in and around York Minster, using acoustic technology to show how the design of the building affects sound within it. Another, the Research Cluster for the Investigation of Acoustic and Musical Elements of Prehistoric Archaeological Sites in Britain, looked at the acoustic environment of prehistoric caves, and monuments like Stonehenge, helping to bring them to life. This project reached a wide audience, when it was featured on the BBC Radio Four programme Hearing the Past.

Valuing the past

For May Cassar, the achievements of the Science and Heritage Programme have been clear, when it comes to heritage professionals: ‘we’ve given curators options in terms of how they might want to store or display objects – we’ve enabled them to be creative within the boundaries that they work.’ Projects have enabled galleries and museums to make rational decisions when it comes to intervening with heritage objects, with one project looking at colour change in early photographs, for example: ‘to an extent this is a scientific question, but it is also about changes in perception: archive users were asked how much colour change really matters, in different contexts. We’ve enabled curators to focus their resources where it matters most.’

The House of Lords Select Committee, whose report led to the Science and Heritage Programme, touched on the links to industry that the programme might strengthen – and indeed, marketable inventions have also emerged as a direct result of the research. Haida Liang at Nottingham Trent University, for example, helped to develop the next generation of Optical Coherence Tomography instrumentation, allowing non-invasive imaging of the under surface of objects, such as the preparatory drawings that lie under finished paintings. The project helped to give UK companies an edge in developing instruments that use this technology.

Preserving the wrought iron hull of the SS Great Britain by dessication designed to control erosion
Preserving the wrought iron hull of the SS Great Britain by desiccation designed to control erosion

At the policy level, too, the Science and Heritage Programme has been a success, says May Cassar: ‘it’s now really embedded in the minds of BIS and DCMS, the idea that heritage science is a worthwhile activity. The UK is so dependent on tourism, and heritage science is the underpinning science that enables us to use, access and appreciate what we have, for longer. How can we use our heritage without consuming it? Heritage science is now accepted as an important research area in the UK, partly as a result of the Science and Heritage Programme. And other research councils in Europe and the US, such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, are following closely what we are doing.’

Finally, one of the impacts of the Science and Heritage Programme has been through its involvement of ‘citizen scientists’ in projects. ‘The public has a fascination with heritage,’ says May Cassar, ‘and the Government is concerned to engage more people in science. Heritage can be the driver that gets more people interested in scientific disciplines.’

For May Cassar, in supporting the Science and Heritage Programme ‘the AHRC has looked beyond academic communities, to broaden the scope of the arts and humanities. In a difficult economic climate, it has championed the new area of heritage science, over a long period. In this, it has shown itself to be remarkably bold – even visionary.’

For further information please go to the Heritage Science website.

Return to features