Science and Heritage Programme

Understanding complex structures: the conservation, display and interpretation of lace and natural objects

School of Art and Design, Nottingham Trent University

Principal Investigator - Professor Tom Fisher (Nottingham Trent University)
Co Investigator - Dr Haida Liang (Nottingham Trent University)


This Research Cluster is running a series of three workshops looking at conserving, displaying and re-interpreting complex artefacts and natural objects by scientists and conservators working together with arts and humanities researchers. It will build a new community, generating new research ideas and proposing possible solutions to a range of practical issues. To focus the workshops they will concentrate on the challenges thrown up by the lace collections at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the collections of botanical, zoological and fossil objects at the Natural History Museum (NHM). These collections are a vehicle for the interdisciplinary exploration of a range of solutions to the conservation needs, curatorial demands and cultural challenges that such complex artefacts create. The cluster will encourage innovative thinking by extending its exploration beyond material culture by comparing the demands of lace collections with the challenges of conserving and reinterpreting complex natural objects as found in natural history collections.

Participants will include physicists, conservators, curators, technologists, cultural practitioners and designers, drawn from universities, museums, archives, SMEs and other institutions   The workshops will enable discussion of the application of science to the conservation, interpretation and representation of complex artefacts and natural objects, through presentations and 'close encounters' with artefacts at NTU, Nottingham City Museums and Galleries (NCMG), V&A, and NHM. This exchange of skills, experience, resources and scientific knowledge will generate a range of topical and insightful research questions.

Because of the nature of the collections, participants will be able to consider both the application of science to heritage, and the explication and interpretation of the heritage of science and technology itself. The latter is represented in the social, industrial and technological history of the Nottingham lace industry, and in the archives and collections at the NHM.

Lace exemplifies many of the problems inherent to the analysis, interpretation and display of unstable and ephemeral artefacts. Displayed flat against a contrasting background it appears like a printed pattern which hides the dynamism of the production process and the drape and movement of the material in use. Its patterns do not easily reveal their structure or the physical techniques used to make them and the impact of the process on lace workers. Likewise, many objects in natural history collections are complex structures which have undergone much human intervention in collecting, preserving, curating and conserving them.

Science is necessary in the conservation of lace and to reveal the structure of such complex artefacts and natural objects, and their full significance as part of historic material culture.   Non-invasive imaging and microfading techniques could help balance the trade off between the need for light in display and the conservation of artefacts from light damage and reveal the structure of historic lace samples to inform their interpretation. Computer animation techniques, such as those applied by colleagues at NTU in the Science Museum and the research project 'Narrating the Past' with Nottingham City Museums and Galleries, can supply a context for historical events and sites by embedding social and cultural history into real-time virtual models through audiovisual narrative. This cluster will also explore other scientific techniques and their potential to address these issues.

These workshops may result in techniques to see below the surface which can feed into representations and computer models of structures, as well as new manufacturing techniques and processes to radically enhance the display and interpretation of artefacts.


Workshop 1 - Orientation and Agenda Setting

Tuesday 24 March
Natural History Museum, London

Download the workshop summary

Link to workshop 1 presentations

Workshop 2 - Clarifying projects: Cross-disciplinary liaison

Monday 11 May
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Download the workshop summary

Link to workshop 2 presentations

Workshop 3 - Resolution: focus on research questions

Friday 12 June
Wollaton Hall, Nottingham

Download the workshop summary

Link to workshop 3 presentations


Nottingham Lace