Science and Heritage Programme

Materiality, Authenticity and Value in the Historic Environment: a Study of the Effects of Material Transformation and Scientific Intervention

University of the West of Scotland

Award Holder - Dr John Hughes


Materiality, Authenticity and Value in the Historic Environment: a Study of the Effects of Material Transformation and Scientific Intervention

It is widely recognized that the historic environment provides a source of cultural enrichment, and enhances people's quality of life and well-being. However, it also undergoes cycles of material transformation, of decay and renewal, which inform the meanings and values associated with it. Indeed, these changes contribute to the experience of authenticity.

Decay acts as a tangible mark of age, and the patina produced by everyday weathering and wear provides a sense of connection across generations. At the same time processes of decay and degradation are assessed and arrested by organisations charged with conserving the historic environment for future generations. Much of this work relies on scientific methods and techniques, which have been developed for use in conserving the historic environment. However, by intervening to modify processes of transformation and decay, these techniques can have a powerful impact on the fabric of historic buildings. They can alter their appearance and introduce new materials, as well as affect the cultural meanings and values attached to them by various groups of people. 

In this project we use methods from the arts and humanities, including interviews and forms of participant observation, to examine the kinds of value attached to deterioration and decay in historic buildings. We investigate how decisions about the conservation of materials are informed by these values and related ideas of authenticity. We also explore how science-based interventions alter these meanings and values, and impact on perceptions of 'the real' and the 'authentic'.

Our partners include the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Scotland, organisations that are involved in conserving and managing some of Scotland's most important historic sites. They provide case studies involving particular historic buildings or monuments that are currently the subject of active conservation. This provides us with the opportunity to study how the science-based techniques they use both inform, and are informed by, cultural values and ideas of authenticity. 

Our project brings together researchers from the humanities and the sciences in a cross-disciplinary collaboration. We are also in partnership with the leaders of a European research project (HEROMAT), which allows us to study the values attached to the latest developments in scientific conservation methods. The research will be of benefit to a wide range of academic researchers and professionals involved in conserving the historic environment. The results are intended to inform future conservation policy and practice, ensuring that science-based techniques are used in a culturally sensitive way in conserving the historic environment. 


The beneficiaries include:

  • Conservation practitioners and heritage scientists, through the project's contribution to culturally informed conservation of the historic environment.
  • Our partner heritage organisations: through practical involvement at the heart of the research that will feed into their ongoing and future work, informing assessment and decision-making.
  • Members of the public: who benefit indirectly through the impact of the research on future conservation, improving interventions sensitive to issues of social and cultural significance
  • Academics

This project will increase knowledge and understanding of the intersection between material transformation, scientific intervention and cultural value. The results will inform the application of heritage science to problems associated with material degradation and decay. Conservation practitioners and heritage scientists will benefit from new insights into the effects of particular kinds of intervention on heritage values. The results of the research should also contribute to the development of professional policy and practice within heritage organisations. An important objective of the project is to provide a model for an integrated approach to managing material degradation in the historic environment that brings together methodologies from the humanities and the sciences thus increasing mutual understanding between science and humanities-based approaches within academic and professional conservation sectors. Both academics and professionals (in the spheres of conservation, heritage science and heritage management) will be able to benefit from the utilisation of this cross-disciplinary methodological approach, through an improved understanding of how decisions are influenced by both values and science based activities.

The case studies involve real, ongoing, interventions such that our findings may have an impact on their eventual outcomes. The NTS and HS will therefore benefit directly from the results of the research, which can feed into their ongoing and future work, informing assessment and decision-making. They will also gain first hand experience of the application of arts and humanities methods in the context of heritage science.

The public will benefit indirectly through the impact of the research on future conservation. The values attached to material transformation by various non-professional audiences will be investigated at the case study sites. Through dissemination of the results to those involved in the conservation of the historic environment we will raise awareness of the relationship between the material and cultural aspects of transformation, facilitating interventions that are sensitive to issues of social and cultural significance.