Translating Data into Action: The Role of Science in the Management of a Heritage Site
By Katherine Curran, on 17 March 2015
By Katherine Curran, Lecturer in Sustainable Heritage and as Assistant Course Director on both the MSc in Sustainable Heritage and the MRes in Heritage Science at the Institute for Sustainable Heritage at the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies
This year British Science Week overlaps with the study trip for our MRes in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology programme at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage. Our students have travelled to Herefordshire to explore how scientific analysis can contribute to the understanding and management of a heritage site, in this case the historic manor of Hellens. Hellens is a fascinating site, a historic house owned by a private charitable trust with a rich history and a beautiful and varied collection of furniture and artefacts. Most importantly, it remains a home for the staff and their families (and several dogs!). Children play in the gardens, dogs are walked in the grounds and family photos are on display among the collection.
Over the course of our nine day visit to Hellens, we will use various different analytical techniques to understand the inter-relationships between the building, the collection and the environment. At the end of our stay, we will present our findings to the site staff and make recommendations for future building and collections management. This is what heritage science is all about, producing accurate data in a rigorous way that can be translated into meaningful information to inform our understanding of heritage sites and provide practical recommendations for their care. We use scientific techniques to help sustain our heritage for future generations.
So what are we doing this week?
How does the building fabric affect the internal environment and what impact is this likely to have on the collection? We are using Near-Infrared Spectroscopy and Infrared Thermography in combination with a moisture meter to map the moisture content of the external walls of two of the rooms in the house. X-ray fluorescence is providing us with information about the composition of both the bricks and the mortars used in construction and analysis of samples of crystallised salts will help to understand the sources of moisture. Combining this with the results of one year’s temperature and relative humidity monitoring, inside and outside, and condition assessment of some more vulnerable items in the collection will allow us to develop a picture of the studied spaces and provide recommendations to the staff for how to manage them.
The collection of objects at Hellens is very varied and includes paintings, furniture, tapestries and leather wall-hangings. We are again focussing on a particular room in the house and using Near-Infrared Imaging to understand object composition and condition, alongside X-ray fluorescence, microscopy and the historical information provided by the curator. Our study of the interior environment in this space will incorporate temperature and relative humidity monitoring within display cases and the room as a whole, as well as light measurements and analysis of volatile organic compounds potentially emitted from display case materials and the collections themselves.
On the last day of our visit (19th March) we will present our findings to the staff at Hellens. Our challenge is then to translate a week of data gathering and analysis into practical recommendations for staff. The emphasis here needs to be on the do-able. We want to help them to improve the condition of both the building and the collection while respecting the essence of Hellens as a home and not a museum.
In terms of scientific analysis, while it is exciting to demonstrate what is possible with the equipment we have transported from UCL, this instrumentation will be returning to London this week. So what insight can be gleaned from our analysis now, and what ideas have we generated for future research?
So for the students (and the staff!) this trip offers an opportunity to reflect on how science can contribute to heritage management in a way that is practical and meaningful.