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Welcome to the Heritage Science blog! In this page, we aim to showcase the exciting heritage science research that is being conducted around the world. The blog posts will promote heritage science publications that are relevant to conservators, written in accessible language, with a focus on the practical and useful implications of the research for practitioners. Research projects involving heritage science will also be publicised, and in time it is the hope that the page will become a repository for these types of projects.

Posts will be uploaded every two weeks and will cover a diverse range of subjects; including research that can support practical conservation of individual objects or collections, the built environment, access and interpretation of heritage, sustainability, method development, policy, heritage management, and public engagement.

Would you like to contribute?

Have you recently published a piece of heritage science research or are involved in a heritage science project? If so and you would like to contribute to the ICON Heritage Science blog please fill out one of our Google forms. If you have any questions or would like to become involved in helping to manage the blog, please contact Natalie Brown at:

Google form for publications.

Google form for projects.



Developing a non-invasive tool to assess the impact of chemical breakdown on the structural properties of historic wool in Tudor tapestries

Author: Nanette Kissi

blog_header_image_copyright_hrp_0.pngImage: ©Historic Royal Palaces

Light, humidity and temperature changes (as well as many other factors) may cause damage to fragile historic tapestries on display over time. In previous research, to measure the physical and chemical changes occur yarns samples had to be removed from the back of the tapestry. However as fragile objects that are over 500 years old it is not always practical to take down the tapestries whenever there is a need for scientific investigation. Another way that conservators measure the condition is by carefully examining the yarn fibres in the tapestries on display to identify broken, brittle or frayed yarns. Through visual assessments alone however, it is difficult to understand the chemical and physical changes that take place.

In this research, we used a non-invasive portable technique called near infrared spectroscopy (NIR) which provides information about the chemical structure of real tapestries from the surface. Using NIR we measured the chemical properties of the wool fibres which are a major element in Tudor tapestries. Although NIR allows us to analyse the tapestry without moving it, the information produced from NIR is often difficult to interpret. It is often necessary to calibrate this method using data measured with destructive analytical techniques like Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) which was used to measure chemical breakdown products (and specifically cystine oxidation products) caused by various factors including UV light induced degradation. The various by-products produced can be indicators of fibres becoming more brittle and ultimately fibre loss. The sacrificial yarn samples required for destructive FTIR analysis in this research, were made available through a collection of historic tapestry fragments at Historic Royal Palaces. Using NIR, it was possible to create mathematical models and apply them successfully to a separate set historic tapestry fragments and with limited success to historic tapestries on open display at Hampton Court Palace predicting their unknown chemical breakdown properties.

In developing this non-invasive tool, we can gain a better understanding of condition and may potentially identify areas that are susceptible to damage before it is results in physical fibre loss. With further development, this research will help to provide evidence-based decision making for the conservation of historic tapestries, complementing the existing and essential condition audits carried out by conservators during visual assessments.




The Conservation research and treatment of a WWII Nominal Roll

Author: Emma Nichols

In May 2016 I was awarded a Research Bursary by the Wellcome Trust which enabled me to carry out an exciting project investigating and treating an extensively damaged Nominal Roll. The Roll, owned by the Royal Commonwealth Society, belongs to the Voices of Civilian Internment: WWII Singapore Archive at Cambridge University Library. The Archive was undergoing conservation for digitisation, for which I was the project conservator, when I was awarded the bursary.

conservator_emma_nichols_applying_adhesive_vapour_to_a_leaf_of_the_nominal_roll_0.jpgImage: ©Emma Nicols

Compiled and bound in the 1940s by civilian internees held by the Japanese, the Nominal Roll was created as a working volume by people living in terrible conditions and under extreme stress who were desperate to record their personal details, situation and treatment. The internees hailed from twenty different countries and survivors of internment rarely spoke of their traumatic ordeal. As a result the Archive, and in particular the Nominal Roll, are of international importance and interest to the families of internees, academics, students and the general public.

Made with the limited facilities and resources available, the Roll was handwritten and composed of poor quality, second-hand 20th century materials. At some point the Roll suffered extensive moisture damage resulting in the loss of paper and text, and the bleeding of inks, leaving what remained very weak and at high risk of further damage from handling. It was required that the Roll be digitised along with the larger Archive to enable it to be accessed by a global audience.

The research project had two main threads. The first was the analysis of the paper and its moisture damage. A major part of this was carried out in collaboration with PhD student Natalie Brown at the Institute for Sustainable Heritage at University College London. Thanks, to Natalie, non-destructive analysis and characterisation tests were carried out on the Nominal Roll’s paper fibres and damaged areas using a Keyence VHX 5000 digital microscope and SurveNIR, a near-infrared spectroscopy system which was developed to analyse the chemical and physical properties of paper.

a_leaf_of_the_nominal_roll_photographed_with_visible_light_and_the_same_leaf_photographed_under_uv_light_with_a_camera_filter_1.jpgA leaf of the Nominal Roll photographed with visible light and the same leaf photographed under UV light with a camera filter.  Image: ©Emma Nicols

Further testing was carried out at Cambridge University Library with the assistance of photographers in the Digital Content Unit using UV imaging equipment purchased with money from the bursary. The UV images enabled the human eye to see the parameters of the moisture and mould damage to the paper. The larger UV images were supplemented with smaller ones of greater detail using a small handheld microscope called a DinoLite. All of the information gathered from the microscopes, near infra-red spectroscopy and UV imaging gave a clearer idea about the characteristics of the paper and extent of its damage.

The second thread of the research project was the development and application of a sympathetic conservation treatment which would stabilise the paper and ink and minimise the risk of further loss. The results of the analysis and UV imaging provided a better understanding of the material composition and current condition of the Roll, information which was crucial in the formulation of an evidence based, sustainable treatment.

A major challenge in the design of a conservation treatment was the bound format of the Roll. A review of existing conservation literature discovered many routinely practised treatments for mould and moisture damaged paper rely on the overall treatment of separate leaves. It was impossible to dismantle the binding without removing original structural elements and therefore losing crucial information about its construction. To align with current conservation ethics, it was decided the conservation of the leaves needed to be carried out in-situ. After extensive testing, the paper leaves of the Roll were stabilised and repaired using an airborne aerosol adhesive and conservation repair tissues.

The Roll was successfully conserved in a way that preserves its original functionality and ensures its longevity. The Roll, like the rest of the Archive, went safely through digitisation and has now been shared with open access on Cambridge Digital Library. The success of the project means the voices of the internees are able to continue to serve as a humbling reminder of human resilience.




Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours

Author: Cecilia Bembibre Jacobo

We don’t know much about the smells of the past. Yet, odours play an important role in our daily lives: they affect us emotionally, psychologically and physically, and influence the way we engage with history. Can this lead us to consider certain smells as cultural heritage? And if so, what would be the processes for the identification, protection and conservation of those heritage smells? In order to answer these questions, we approached the connection between olfaction and heritage in three ways: 

incense-stick-405899_1920_1.jpg Image: Creative Commons

1. through theoretical analysis of the concept and role of olfaction in heritage guidelines, leading to identification of places and practices where smell is fundamental to their identity.
2. through exploration of the evidence for use of smells in heritage as a tool to communicate with audiences.
3. through experimental evaluation of the techniques and methods for analysing and archiving the smells, therefore enabling their documentation and preservation.

We present this through the framework of Significance Assessment—Chemical Analysis—Sensory Analysis—Archiving. The smell of historic paper was chosen as the case study, based on its well-recognized cultural significance and available research. Odour characterization was achieved by collecting visitor descriptions of a historic book extract through a survey, and by conducting a sensory evaluation at a historic library. These were combined with the chemical information on the VOCs sampled from both a historic book and a historic library, to create the Historic Book Odour Wheel, a novel documentation tool representing the first step towards documenting and archiving historic smells. It has the potential to be used as a diagnostic tool by conservators, informing on the condition of the object through its olfactory profile.

In terms of visitor experience and interpretation, the olfactory experience in museums, both as a communication strategy and as an art form, could contribute to improved learning, to a more personal connection to the exhibits and an increased overall enjoyment. Furthermore, a public discussion is essential to develop olfactory vocabulary and to identify aromas that have cultural meaning and significance.

Read the full paper here.