Amgueddfa Blog: Sustainability

2019 is the 150th anniversary of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (see UNESCO https://www.iypt2019.org/). The "International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (IYPT2019)" is an opportunity to reflect upon many aspects of the periodic table, including the social and economic impacts of chemical elements.

Sulphur is the fifth most common element (by mass) on Earth and one of the most widely used chemical substances. But sulphur is common beyond Earth: the innermost of the four Galilean moons of the planet Jupiter, Io, has more than 400 active volcanoes which deposit lava so rich in sulphur that its surface is actually yellow.

Alchemy

The sulphate salts of iron, copper and aluminium were referred to as “vitriols”, which occurred in lists of minerals compiled by the Sumerians 4,000 years ago. Sulfuric acid was known as “oil of vitriol”, a term coined by the 8th-century Arabian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. Burning sulphur used to be referred to as “brimstone”, giving rise to the biblical notion that hell apparently smelled of sulphur.

Mineralogy

Sulphur rarely occurs in its pure form but usually as sulphide and sulphate minerals. Elemental sulphur can be found near hot springs, hydrothermal vents and in volcanic regions where it may be mined, but the major industrial source of sulphur is the iron sulphide mineral pyrite. Other important sulphur minerals include cinnabar (mercury sulphide), galena (lead sulphide), sphalerite (zinc sulphide), stibnite (antimony sulphide), gypsum (calcium sulphate), alunite (potassium aluminium sulphate), and barite (barium sulphate). Accordingly, the Mindat (a wonderful database for all things mineral) entry for sulphur is rather extensive: https://www.mindat.org/min-3826.html.

Chemistry

Sulphur is the basic constituent of sulfuric acid, referred as universal chemical, ‘King of Chemicals’ due to the numerous applications as a raw material or processing agent. Sulfuric acid is the most commonly used chemical in the world and used in almost all industries; its multiple industrial uses include the refining of crude oil and as an electrolyte in lead acid batteries. World production of sulfuric acid stands at more than 230 million tonnes per year.

Warfare

Gunpowder, a mixture of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate invented in 9th century China, is the earliest known explosive. Chinese military engineers realised the obvious potential of gunpowder and by 904 CE were hurling lumps of burning gunpowder with catapults during a siege. In chemical warfare, 2,400 years ago, the Spartans used sulphur fumes against enemy soldiers. Sulphur is an important component of mustard gas, used since WWI as an incapacitating agent.

Pharmacy

Sulphur-based compounds have a huge range of therapeutic applications, such as antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antidiabetic, antimalarial, anticancer and other medicinal agents. Many drugs contain sulphur; early examples include antibacterial sulphonamides, known as “sulfa drugs”. Sulphur is a part of many antibiotics, including the penicillins, cephalosporins and monolactams.

Biology

Sulphur is an essential element for life. Some amino acids (cysteine and methionine; amino acids are the structural components of proteins) and vitamins (biotin and thiamine) are organosulfur compounds. Disulphides (sulphur–sulphur bonds) confer mechanical strength and insolubility of the protein keratin (found in skin, hair, and feathers). Many sulphur compounds have a strong smell: the scent of grapefruit and garlic are due to organosulfur compounds. The gas hydrogen sulphide gives the characteristic odour to rotting eggs.

Farming

Sulphur is one of the essential nutrients for crop growth. Sulphur is important to help with nutrient uptake, chlorophyll production and seed development. Hence, one of the greatest commercial uses of sulfuric acid is for fertilizers. About 60% of pyrite mined for sulphur is used for fertilizer manufacture – you could say that the mineral pyrite literally feeds the world.

Environment

Use of sulphur is not without problems: burning sulphur-containing coal and oil generates sulphur dioxide, which reacts with water in the atmosphere to form sulfuric acid, one of the main causes of acid rain, which acidifies lakes and soil, and causes weathering to buildings and structures. Acid mine drainage, a consequence of pyrite oxidation during mining operations, is a real and large environmental problem, killing much life in many rivers across the world. Recently, the use of a calcareous mudstone rock containing a high proportion of pyrite as backfill for housing estates in the area around Dublin caused damage to many houses when the pyrite oxidised; the case was eventually resolved with the “Pyrite Resolution Act 2013” allocating compensation to house owners.

Conservation of museum specimens

Because iron sulphides are highly reactive minerals, their conservation in museum collections poses significant challenges. Because we care for our collections, which involves constantly improving conservation practice, we are always researching novel ways of protecting vulnerable minerals. Our current project, jointly with University of Oxford, is undertaken by our doctoral research student Kathryn Royce https://www.geog.ox.ac.uk/graduate/research/kroyce.html.

Come and see us!

If all this has wetted your appetite for chemistry and minerals, come and see the sulphur and pyrite specimens we display at National Museum Cardiff https://museum.wales/cardiff/, or learn about mining and related industries at Big Pit National Coal Museum https://museum.wales/bigpit/ and National Slate Museum https://museum.wales/slate/.

This is a community project led by volunteers from Dre-fach Felindre Gardening Club in conjunction with the National Wool Museum and involving the local primary school’s Eco group. The main aim is to provide a sustainable attractive garden using plants that traditionally have been used for their natural dyes. The plant materials are harvested and used in the end of season workshops.

Early in 2019, the Natural Dye Garden Group was approached by Dr Nicol, of the Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University, regarding the Economic Botany Collection. This is held in National Museum Cardiff.

Dr Nicol had met with the group some time previously to help explore how this collection of 3,500 specimens might support the public’s understanding and valuing of biodiversity. These specimens were wide ranging but only included one specimen of dye plant material from the UK.

The Museum asked if the Natural Dye Garden Group could provide a contribution to the Economic Botany Collection to expand the range of dye plants held. We were delighted to be able to help.

Every year plant materials from the Natural Dye Garden are harvested and stored for use in the natural dye workshops. From this resource it was possible to provide 13 specimens, labelled and boxed for the Economic Botany Collection.

Additionally, another box was prepared of corresponding dyed samples of wool fibre. In all, 20 colours were included, as examples of colour modifications were added such as yellow from weld overdyed with blue from woad to make green.

These boxes have significantly expanded the natural dye plant selection of the Economic Botany Collection and have all been grown on the National Wool Museum site here in West Wales.

One of the best reasons for housing heritage collections inside buildings is that the building keeps the weather out. Paintings, fossils, books and skeletons are best kept dry, and walls and roofs protect our collections (as well as staff and visitors) from the elements.

In addition, many of the objects in our collections also need specific temperature and humidity ranges to prevent them from suffering damage. Too high a humidity can cause swelling of wood, for example, initiating cracks in objects, or, if humidity gets even higher, mould growth. Therefore, National Museum Cardiff has a complicated air conditioning system. This system is more than 40 years old and has been maintenance-intensive and inefficient for some time.

We are happy to report that, after several years of planning, we have just completed the installation of new chillers and humidifiers at National Museum Cardiff. The purpose of chillers in the museum is to provide cold water – for lowering the temperature of galleries and stores in the summer, and for dehumidifying stores and galleries if there is too much moisture in the air. Humidifiers achieve the opposite effect: they increase humidity in stores and galleries if it is too low. Low humidity is usually a problem during the winter months – you may have experienced your skin drying out at home when you have the heating on in winter. To prevent our collections drying out we cannot apply skin cream; instead, we maintain a minimum level of humidity in stores and galleries.

The chillers and humidifiers have been commissioned now, and are working well. They have already proved that the control of our indoor environments is better than it was before. A very positive side effect of the new technologies is that they are much more efficient than the old equipment. In fact, they are so efficient that we are anticipating to shave almost 50% off our annual electricity bill for National Museum Cardiff, saving the planet more than 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That is the equivalent of taking 100 cars off the road, or the average energy a family home uses in 38 years.

By investing in such new technologies, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales continues to ensure the safe storage and display of the nation’s heritage collections, whilst at the same time making a massive contribution towards the National Assembly’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (Environment Wales Act 2016).

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter. Follow the progress of the maintenance works during the coming months in 2019 on Twitter using the hashtag #museumcare.

 

 

My name is Brian and I live in Talbot Green. When I was in school I used to do gardening in Y Pant. In the winter I used to help my dad in the garden.

I worked in Remploy in Tonyrefail for ten years starting in 1974. We used to do all sorts of jobs. Then I did four years in Llantrisant, and twenty five years in Porth. On Fridays we finished early and went to the pub for lunch. I retired in 2013. I have the opening plaque from when Remploy opened in Porth in 1988. The building has been demolished.

Since I retired I have done a computer course and a photography course. I have also done pottery and pop art, and I have a big collection of paintings that I have done.

I came to the Take Charge coffee morning in August 2018 and found out about the chance to help at The Secret Garden at St Fagans National Museum of History. That’s when I decided to start gardening again. I’ve learned about teamwork, we work here in a team.

I enjoy doing it, I feel happy. I look forward to coming out and abought especially. I feel tired after, but good tired. My favourite job is raking. I’ve learnt that I enjoy volunteering.


The Secret Garden is maintain and developed by Innovate Trust whose main work is to support people with learning disabilities, mental health issues and people with physical impairments.

 

Were you amongst among the record number of people who enjoyed our recent ‘Tim Peake’ and ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ exhibitions at National Museum Cardiff? Did you realise that, while you were in the public galleries, there were workers with hard hats and power tools working to improve the building?

We are currently undertaking a large amount of maintenance works in the museum. We do this in such a way to minimise the disturbance to our visitors as much as possible. We want you to enjoy your experience at the museum and be inspired. During the coming months, however, scaffolding will be erected around parts of the building. We are also going to get a temporary over roof on the oldest part of the museum.

Given that this part of the building was opened as long ago as April 1927 by King George V it is now due some tender loving care. Owing to the ravages of time, the roof has developed a few leaks which we are going to repair this year. This also involves having to close some galleries temporarily, for example the Ceramics and Photography galleries. We do apologise for the inconvenience, but these closures are necessary to allow us to undertake the work on the roof and associated internal works.

Galleries will reopen refreshed in the Autumn of 2019, once the works are completed. The brilliant news is that we will be able to present exhibitions without having to worry about a leaking roof. Associated electrical rewiring will also reduce the fire risk in the museum.

Other works we are undertaking - unbeknown to most people as these are happening in our basement - are further electrical works and substantial improvements to our air conditioning systems. This includes the installation of new air conditioning equipment to replace old equipment which will make the museum much more environmentally sustainable.

We are undertaking these works, with kind support of Welsh Government, to protect the Welsh national collection. We constantly strive to improve the way we care for the three million objects housed at National Museum Cardiff. The collections allow us to refresh displays regularly and put on exhibitions with new themes – check out our new ‘People and Plants’ exhibition of the museum’s economic Botany collection. Collections are also used for research, study, teaching, commemoration and many other functions.

Hence, there are many reasons why we would want to do our best to preserve the collections as best we can. The maintenance works during the coming months will greatly assist us with our collection care and, if these occasionally impact on our public spaces, we do ask that you bear with us – the works are temporary but the benefits will be long-lasting.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter. Follow the progress of the maintenance works during the coming months in 2019 on Twitter using the hashtag #museumcare.