Science and Heritage Programme

Sustainable radiography for cultural materials in the 21st century: optimising filmless capture techniques

University of Bradford/ National Museums Liverpool

Award holder - Dr Andrew Wilson
Student - Lucy Martin


This is a pivotal moment for radiography as increased use of filmless capture systems and environmental concerns are threatening the future viability of film-based techniques. Heritage science needs to adopt sustainable filmless radiographic techniques, suitable for the varied applications in the study and conservation of cultural materials. A number of different filmless radiographic techniques are currently available employing both analogue and digital image receptors. These capture systems may be optimised for use with existing X-ray facilities designed for real-time inspection, clinical, high-definition, micro-focus or three-dimensional imaging. Whilst filmless radiography may offer new directions for the investigation of cultural materials, not all systems will produce images of a quality suitable for the disparate applications and exacting standards of cultural materials radiography.


  • Evaluate the range of filmless imaging techniques currently available and their suitability for the x-ray investigation of different cultural materials based on image quality, information obtained, radiographic practice, cost, training of users, accessibility etc.
  • Develop best-practice for the capture, digital image processing, storage and dissemination of digital x-radiographic images in the investigation of cultural materials.


The need to replace radiographic film with a more sustainable image receptor is a pressing problem for many museums and those working with cultural materials. To date, filmless radiography (particularly digital capture), has not yet been tested in a rigorous and scientific way in the heritage field.


  • Undertake detailed investigation of the characteristics of the receptor in different filmless capture systems to assess which are best suited to particular applications in cultural materials radiography.
  • Optimise selected capture systems using 1) test subjects 2) image quality indicators 3) select cultural heritage materials. Comparison of the results with high definition film radiographs


The project will examine the x-ray response of filmless capture systems and the quality of captured data as progress towards a sustainable future for cultural materials radiography. In addition, the project will interpret newly accessible types of information and assess working practice – changes in radiographic image use and best practice for maintaining the integrity of the image as part of integrated digital data management/retrieval systems for museums.


Filmless radiography can offer enhanced information recovery compared with traditional film radiography, based on improved dynamic range. It will be more sustainable than film radiography, bringing both economic benefits (in terms of reduced capture time, capital and running costs) and environmental benefits (avoiding the need for x-ray film, chemicals and water usage). In working closely with our non-academic partner we will ensure public engagement with our findings, particularly through the NML Reveal laboratory.


University of Bradford: Dr A. Wilson, R Janaway, S. O'Connor, Jason Maher; National Museums, Liverpool : David Crombie, Dr Siobhan Watts, Dr Jon Murden


Lucy Martin

Lucy Martin graduated from the University of Bradford with an Archaeological Sciences degree in 2001. She always had an interest and ability in drawing and painting, and the following year she joined Oxford Archaeology as an illustrator, photographer and designer, where she stayed for the next  seven years. Her interest in science was maintained by an active program of Open University natural sciences courses and weekly volunteering at Oxford University’s Natural History Museum. She returned to Bradford University in January last year to begin her current research project and feeds her  interest in photography by maintaining a website from where she sells images.

Lucy’s project aims to address the current dearth of relevant and useful information available to cultural heritage institutions wishing to move to filmless X-ray image capture systems. The reasons for this transition may be as simple as the continually increasing expense and rarity of X-ray film and processing chemicals, but the overwhelming range of different systems available can lead to poor decisions.

Each system is made to suit the requirements of a different application, of which there are many in the medical, industrial and security sectors. Understanding and communicating the different functions of these systems and how these impact on their usefulness in the cultural heritage field is extremely important. Lucy is testing these systems with a range of test objects and specially-made image quality indicators, as well as assessing their functional differences (often just as important as image quality).

Above: Lucy Martin x‐raying a painting at the Conservation Centre, Liverpool. Image (c) Lucy Martin/National Museums Liverpool.


A range of test objects from the CRS project 'Sustainable Radiography for Cultural Materials in the 21st Century: Optimising Filmless Capture Techniques'. Image (c) Lucy Martin.

A range of test objects from the CRS project 'Sustainable Radiography for Cultural Materials in the 21st Century: Optimising Filmless Capture Techniques'. Image (c) Lucy Martin.