Science and Heritage Programme

Heritage Smells!

University of Strathclyde

Award holder - Dr Lorraine Gibson


Heritage Smells!

University of Strathclyde

Dr L Gibson
Amount Awarded: £537,123.00, 2 Studentships

Experts in science (chemistry, physics, statistics), heritage science and sensor technology will drive an ambitious but realistic proposal to develop diagnostic olfactory tools for heritage science. The new devices will be non-invasive, noncontact, portable and simple to use providing real-time data; making them well suited to address cultural heritage questions and survey collections, particularly for objects where potential hazards, access issues or sampling restrictions have precluded study to date. Implementation of energy efficient sensors to tackle heritage problems (rather than large equipment) will also help reduce the U.K.'s environmental footprint. Indeed, there is an overall lack of capacity in the heritage sector both in organic material analysis and volatile organic compound (VOC) monitoring; this research addresses such issues.

By merely 'sniffing' the air, questions regarding the environmental and conservation history, composition, condition or stability of objects will be answered. This will empower collections custodians and allow informed decisions about the acquisition, storage, conservation, display and long-term preservation of items, whilst also ensuring the health of those accessing public and private collections.

Three key interconnected challenges have been identified where timely research will give the UK a leading position providing new knowledge, expertise and technical developments, informing practitioners in heritage-user defined problem areas.

1) The past use of hazardous chemicals to disinfect/disinfest objects presents risks to those handling or accessing objects. Within this challenge objects will be 'sniffed' to determine if they have undergone such treatments. The data will allow informed conservation /research decisions regarding handling, display, loan and access. Key deliverables include: improvement of scholarly, public and native community use and engagement with cultural heritage and collection preservation, and development of new knowledge data bases that will be used to train portable sensing systems designed for high-throughput object screening.

2) Since the beginning of last century observation and analyses have established that paper is unstable. A by-product of the deterioration process is the production of VOCs. In this challenge a well characterized set of papers will be 'sniffed' to identify target indicators that imply paper instability. A key deliverable will be the development and application of non-invasive portable sampling tools for paperbased collections that can be used to provide rapid on-site analysis of stability and risk.

3) Heritage institutions are continually acquiring objects that contain synthetic, complex and inherently unstable modern materials. The composition and condition of such objects are extremely difficult to characterise and assess. A unique approach will be taken to tackle this problem: measurement of VOCs emitted by modern materials. The data will be used to inform heritage users of object composition and materials instability; interpretation of 'object smell' has not previously been exploited in this way. A key deliverable is development of a new tool for the identification of modern materials at risk allowing mitigation methods to be implemented to retard chemical and/or biological deterioration.

This proposal therefore seeks to develop VOC sampling tools to address these challenges without the need for complex or costly instrumentation. Indeed very few heritage institutions have access to laboratory equipment and such studies are impossible to implement. The outcome of this research (development of hand held portable low cost sensors) will be of wide benefit to heritage-users and open the research door to thousands of smaller institutions (museums, galleries, libraries, historic houses) and private collectors.