Amgueddfa Blog: Geology

 The numbers of specimens in geological collections in the UK alone reach into the tens of millions. These collections are important for research, education and also commercially. Museums hold collections, but so do individuals and companies; exploration companies keep rock core samples which can be as valuable as £1,000 per meter.

There is now sufficient evidence to dispel the myth that geological collections are inherently stable and require fewer resources to preserve them than other areas of museum collections. In fact, a proportion of geological collections demand a level of attention and maintenance comparable with archaeological metal collections. This includes similar environmental and pollution-related considerations.

About 10% of known mineral species are sensitive to changes in temperature or humidity, or may react with air pollutants. One such mineral is pyrite – common in geological collections and one that is particularly troublesome. However, despite centuries of research on pyrite decay there is a dearth of knowledge in subjects that would help museums improve the effectiveness of their care of geological collections. This includes the categorisation of damage to specimens, methodologies for objective routine condition assessment, the definition of an adequate storage environment, and successful conservation treatments.

Currently available methodologies are not suitable for routine collection monitoring, results are not necessarily replicable, and, in the absence of guidance on suitable storage conditions, triggers and the suitability of conservation actions are difficult to determine. We need a more robust approach to the delivery of preventive conservation of geological collections.

We have now teamed up with the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA) at University College London, University of Oxford and University of Brighton to investigate these aspects of preservation of geological collections. A four-year studentship has been advertised which will be based at Oxford University but spend a considerable amount of time working at National Museum Cardiff. If you are interested in this subject, and have a background in, ideally, geology, chemistry or engineering, please do get in touch.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.

 

What's all this dinosaur havoc going on around Cardiff City Centre?

Who (or what?!) damaged our newly erected statue of Thomas H Thomas and is causing mayhem on the streets of Cardiff?!

If you spot any monstrous goings-on or dino-mischief around Cardiff then please let us know over on Twitter using the hashtag #DinoOnTheLoose.

This is an unfolding story - updates will be brought to you as we become aware of them.

Follow the story: #DinoOnTheLoose

The first dinosaur footprints found anywhere in Europe

One sunny evening in September 1878, Welsh artist and naturalist Thomas Henry Thomas was wandering around the small village of Nottage, just outside Porthcawl. The rays of the setting sun were shining across a large slab of rock placed on the edge of the churchyard. The local villagers told him that the five strange markings on the rock were the footprints of the devil as he strode across the slab. The rock had lain between the church and the village pub for years, and was a local curiosity.

Thomas was a well-educated man, born in Pontypool in 1839, and had studied Art at the Royal Academy, before returning to Wales. He was a key member of the Cardiff Naturalists Society, and a well-respected artist as well. On discovering the footprints, illuminated by the setting sun in the churchyard, he was struck by the similarity between these markings and newly found dinosaur footprints in North America. He quickly sketched the prints and informed various local geologists. John Storrie, curator of the Cardiff Museum, visited the site and made a cast of the trackway.

The President of the Cardiff Naturalists Society was Colonel Turbervill, who arranged for the rock to be brought to the Cardiff Museum for safe-keeping.

Thomas H. Thomas wrote a short paper, in January 1879, describing the footprints and also his attempts at Bristol Zoo, to persuade a suspicious Emu to walk across modelling clay, for comparison! He described the footprints as "Tridactyl Uniserial Ichnolites", but left it to Professor W Sollas of Bristol University to publish a formal description, with the name Brontozoum thomasi. We now know that these footprints were made 220 million years ago by a medium-sized meat-eating dinosaur, similar to Megalosaurus which evolved later.

The original footprint slab was around 6' 6" long and 5' 6" wide, and about 6 inches thick, although excess rock was later removed to make it easier to handle and display. When the collections of the old Cardiff Museum were transferred to the new National Museum of Wales in 1907, the footprints were one of its most important acquisitions. Currently the fossil is on display in the Evolution of Wales gallery, as befitting the first dinosaur footprints found anywhere in Europe.

Wales has an important place in the evolutionary history of dinosaurs; not only this early set of footprints, but also another major trackway site near the town of Barry, which is one of the most significant sites of its age in Europe. The rocks of this area were laid down around 220 million years ago, at a time when Wales was a low-lying desert, similar to those in the Arabian Gulf today, and dinosaurs had just evolved. Over the next 20 million years, the sea-level rose and the deserts disappeared underwater. However the dinosaurs living on higher ground continued to diversify into different species, one of which was Dracoraptor, the small theropod dinosaur found near to Penarth in 2014, and now on display at the National Museum Cardiff.

Our collaborations with Cardiff University in the area of heritage science continue to grow. Just before Easter, Daniel Griffiths from the School of Engineering contributed towards our goal of developing monitoring tools for use by museum conservators.

One of the routine tasks of conservators is to keep an eye on the condition of items stored in museums. Being responsible for looking after Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales’ five million objects, the team of less than 20 the conservators have their work cut out. In addition to the sheer number of objects in need of monitoring, for some categories of items there are currently issues with keeping adequate records for comparison with future condition assessments. We also want to objectivise the entire process to enable easier comparison between assessments undertaken at different times or by different people.

Presently, changes to collection items (if any) are detected by visual assessments and recording these in a text form, often supplemented with photographs. If such items are small and prone to chemical reactions, the results of which are difficult to describe, condition assessments are very difficult to undertake.

How do we make things easier, quicker and more objective? Daniel, a student in engineering, undertook a pilot study to create an overview of our options for non-invasive damage testing in geological specimens (specifically, in minerals). Some testing methods – such as acoustic emission, ultrasound, and X-ray and micro magnetic resonance imaging – were discounted early on in the project for various reasons. Any further techniques Daniel considered are based on imaging or scanning, grounded in the assumption that most damage to minerals is visible as changes in shape, integrity or colour.

Initial thoughts on using artificially aged pyrite were replaced in favour of CAD-designed and 3D-printed models of ‘crystals’: one set ‘undamaged’ and a second ‘damaged’ set with deliberately introduced yet precisely known ‘decay features’, such as holes and cuts. Daniel then scanned or imaged these models and compared the results for speed, ease of use, cost effectiveness and accuracy of recording of ‘decay’.

The best results were obtained with the Artec Space Spider, a handheld high-resolution 3D scanner based on blue light technology with easy-to-use software. The downside of this technique is the high purchasing cost of this instrument and software. Mobile phone technology, which was one of the comparative techniques, is not yet evolved enough to provide useful (i.e., good image quality, faithful recording of defects smaller than 5mm diameter) results.

The results of this study are encouraging because they provide us with a good foundation for future development work. There are questions about the faithful recording of colour, especially of reflective crystal surfaces, and combining features of storage, processing and analysis of images through one single computer program.

Daniel was supervised by Prof Rhys Pullin and Dr John McCrory from Cardiff University’s School of Engineering. We thank both of them for their support and cooperation in this project.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

When someone has a great idea but cannot get it off the ground by themselves, they find a powerful partner with similar interests and join forces. We have done just that: we want to research how we can improve storage for the national Geology collection. We spoke to Oxford University who are that enthusiastic about working with us.

Now that we have a fundraising target and a really tight deadline. What do we do next? Phone a friend?

This is exactly what we are doing now. You are our friend. We are asking: who do you think we should talk to about raising the funds to enable this project to happen?

We know you are as passionate about our cultural and scientific heritage as we are. We need your advice on the best way to reach our fundraising target.

Allow me to introduce the project. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales looks after 900,000 geological specimens. We use this collection daily to inspire, educate, and research. We have great stores but many minerals react with chemicals in the air and start changing. Sometimes they change so badly that they crumble to dust. Clearly, simply putting our geological specimens into lovely stores is not good enough to preserve them for future generations.

Now, if we want to become better at looking after your collections (they do not actually belong to us, but to you and everybody else in Wales), we need to know where we can make improvements. The challenge is, nobody really knows at present what exactly we need to improve on. We already work to the highest available standards, but the current standards do not tell us much about how minerals react with airborne chemicals.

We want to join forces with Oxford University and the heritage science network SEAHA http://www.seaha-cdt.ac.uk/ for a research project. We have 60% of the funding. All we need now is the remaining 40% and we are all go.

And this is where you come in.

This is the future of museums. We are happy to offer an opportunity to become involved in a high-profile project to improve the long-term storage of geological collections. If you know anyone we should speak to about fundraising please get in touch. If you would like some more information please download our 'Benefits to Partners' leaflet (in the right hand margin).

Thank you.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.