Collection Services research case studies

How do objects, artefacts and specimens help us answer important research questions, and how can we understand their material properties better so they can continue to provide vital evidence for enquiry?

Research in conservation focuses on the objects held in the collections - whether these are scientific specimens, artworks, photographs, archaeological finds, historic buildings or historical artefacts - and enhances understanding of their significance and cultural value.

All heritage assets are liable to decay. Decay mechanisms are complex, involving interactions between objects, the environment and people; without a scientific understanding of how these processes work there is a risk that cultural and scientific information will be lost. Conservation research investigates how decay processes can be slowed down, either through interventive treatments or by preventive management of the display or storage environment.

Conservators are particularly concerned to establish the impact of past and current treatments; to ensure current treatments do not unintentionally reduce information retrieval either now or in the future (eg DNA studies); and to evaluate whether current techniques will still be appropriate in changing climates eg outdoor coatings

In the course of their work, conservators at Amgueddfa Cymru regularly use:

  • Microscopy (optical, scanning electron, UV light, polarised light) for thin and cross-section analysis to provide information on: paper and other fibres; wear patterns on metal and stone tools; and specific pigments and layers in paintings
  • X-radiography to identify and analyse: degraded archaeological material; images under paintings; the structure of objects to visualise any additions or alterations
  • XRD, XRF, FTIR and SEM-EDX to analyse compounds, elements and isotopes to understand what material is made of and its state of degradation; to study composite objects to look for later additions.

Conservation research includes:

  1. Material science - understanding what things are made of and how the authenticity of an object of affects by what has been done to it over time
  2. Experimental research - setting up experiments that enable hypotheses to be tested about how different factors impact on materials’ stability
  3. Buildings physics - investigating how the buildings and environments in which we place things evolve, so that we can display them whilst preventing damage

Highlighted projects:

Preservation of geological collections: PhD studentship, funded by EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology.

Geological collections are often assumed to be inherently stable compared to other areas of museum collections. Yet some geological collections demand a level of attention and maintenance comparable with archaeological metal collections, involving similar environmental and pollution-related effects. However, there is a dearth of knowledge in subjects that would help museums improve the effectiveness of their care of geological collections. 

10% of known mineral species are sensitive to changes in temperature or humidity, or may react with air pollutants. An example is pyrite - a common mineral in geological collections and one that is especially vulnerable to decay. Yet there has been little work in museums on the categorisation of damage to specimens, methodologies for objective routine condition assessment, the definition of an adequate storage environment or successful conservation treatments. This studentship, a partnership between AC-NMW, University College London, University of Oxford and University of Brighton, will develop a robust methodology for ensuring effective preventive conservation of geological collections.

Experimental acoustic research with ancient Welsh musical instrument

Amgueddfa Cymru is fortunate enough to house one of only three surviving authentic Welsh ‘crwths’ in Britain, held at St Fagans National Museum of History. It was always thought that these ancient stringed, fretted instruments had solid necks, as in all the extant replicas. However, conservators discovered that the originals (regardless of chronology/provenance) all possess a hollow neck, inviting the question: what difference does this make to the sound quality emitted?  An experiment was set up to compare the tonal effect by building a replica with first a solid neck then a hollowed-out one and using a tuning fork of a known pitch. The effect recorded was of a substantial increase (approx. 7 seconds) in the length of resonance for each note played (similar to a sustain pedal on a keyboard). Further, a lost design in ink exposed by UV light on the neck reveals how the instrument would have been played.  This work has highlighted a forgotten musical attribute of an ancient instrument, providing new information about the experience of listening to and playing it - suggesting a particularly resonant and reverberating sound that would have been quite haunting. 

A new discovery within an old instrument

Painting of Girl with Goats in the Landscape: Why are the goats glittery?

This 19th century British framed watercolour arrived at the Museum as part of a bequest in 2010. It was supposed that the glitter was the artist’s intent. Initial analysis suggested it had been conserved using a substance that produces a light dusting of transparent material, giving the appearance of glitter. The hypothesis was that this was caused by the use of Chloramine T (a bleaching agent). Analysis of the glittery material was carried out using FTIR and was confirmed as Para toluene sulphemide – produced due to poor washing after the use of Chloramine T.