A Brief Theory of Heritage Science

By Matija Strlic

Premise 1: In one way or another, we have been doing heritage science for ages. I will use this term to describe the science of heritage, i.e. how we manage, interpret, conserve heritage as well as provide access to it.[1] In his lecture at the Royal Institution in 1843, Michael Faraday lectured about pollution importantly contributing to book degradation. A bit of poignant trivia: Faraday was trained as a bookbinder before he became one of the most influential scientists of all times.

Red rot on leather: one of the first topics to excite heritage scientists.

Red rot on leather: one of the first topics to excite heritage scientists.

Premise 2: Heritage science is culturally dependent. The fact that ‘heritage’ is a culturally dependant term gives our field of scientific enquiry an interesting angle: the value (or, retrospectively, ‘impact’) of the science that we do depends on the culture we inhabit. Research on a 1970s piece of plastic furniture could be exciting in the context of a design museum and completely rubbish in the context of a society in which such objects do not have ‘cult’ status. I use the term deliberately.

Purchased in a flea market as rubbish, valuable as a scientific sample.

Purchased in a flea market as rubbish, valuable as a scientific sample.

Premise 3: Heritage science is inherently biased. If heritage is stuff (tangible or intangible, material or digital) with cult status, don’t scientists, by doing research on it, contribute to its glorification? The heritage value of an object could well be its scientific interest – which makes the science that we do inherently biased, because by studying an object we implicitly contribute to its status. Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland is a case in point.[2]

Scientists create heritage through their research.

Scientists create heritage through their research.

Premise 4: Heritage science can be neither fundamental nor experimental. While in the use of mock or surrogate objects for research, the experimental approach principles typical of scientific endeavour are embedded, science of heritage cannot be repeatable because heritage is not an experiment. Equally, there can be no fundamental research question because the objective of heritage science is always known.

As heritage is not repeatable, is heritage science experimental science?

As heritage is not repeatable, is heritage science experimental science?

Premise 5: Heritage science is multivariate. This is not to say that it is not exact science; however, since the context of heritage can be unknown, there can be any number of variables affecting the heritage system under observation – in this, the premise of heritage science comes close to social science, although the ‘society’ we study is a population of ‘things’ – with their individual lifetimes and dynamics of change and interactions (all culturally dependant, of course).

They look the same, move the same, feel the same, but are not identical.

They look the same, move the same, feel the same, but are not identical.

Premise 6: Heritage science helps to interpret heritage. The heritage value of an object is in the benefits we obtain from interaction with it, not in its (material) representation (unless we believe that an object has value in and of itself). Through our senses, we interpret them and extract information from them. This metadata can become more valuable than the item itself; a study of the value of mineral collections[3] has shown that curators may well value the metadata more than the objects. The market value of this metadata can easily be immeasurable.[4]

Metadata: not just any snack, this one was in space!

Metadata: not just any snack, this one was in space!

Premise 7: Heritage science provides evidence for sustainable conservation. Keeping stuff for longer is inherently sustainable, but can keeping it for too long (the society has a view on what is acceptable[5]) become an unsustainable proposition? How do we balance our need to own, with our needs to breathe and eat? We need evidence to provide balance. I risk sounding Darwinian when I say that when time has its way with heritage, it can be for the better.

Long-term storage: how long is too long?

Long-term storage: how long is too long?

Premise 8: Through improved access, heritage science contributes to well-being. Heritage that is accessible, in its preserved authentic form or as a (digital) reproduction, is a “resource for economic growth, employment and social cohesion”.[6] Quite how we should balance the extraction of economic or social benefits from the heritage resource with its preservation is an open question of heritage resource management and the science supporting it.

Digitisation: increased benefits from access to heritage.

Digitisation: increased benefits from access to heritage.

Premise 9: Heritage science is proof that there is no world of Two Cultures[7]. A scientist, researching heritage defies the existence of the divide: there can be no scientific research of heritage without a contribution by humanities research. Heritage science also successfully bridges science and culture, because it provides an attractive vehicle to convey ideas and concepts related to technology and engineering, as well as culture and society.

Engaging with heritage and with science: there is no disciplinary gap.

Engaging with heritage and with science: there is no disciplinary gap.

Premise 10: Heritage science urgently needs to develop its identity. It yet needs to populate a defined space; it needs a voice to represent researchers; it needs a unifying theory; it needs to define its grand challenges.

 

Blog Post By:

Matija Strlic, UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage

Matija Strlic, UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritage_science

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1422288/Dolly-the-sheep-to-be-stuffed-for-display.html

[3] J. Robb, C. Dillon, M. Rumsey, M. Strlic: “Quantitative Assessment of Perceived Value of Geological Collections by ‘Experts’ for Improved Collections Management”, Geol. Cur., 9 (2013) 529-543

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/feb/02/new-michelangelo-sculptures-fitzwilliam-museum-cambridge-bronzes

[5] C. Dillon, W. Lindsay, J. Taylor, K. Fouseki, N. Bell, M. Strlic: “Collections demography: stakeholders’ views on the lifetime of collections”, Climate for Collections Conference, Munich, Doerner Institut, 7-9 November 2012, Postprints, J. Ashley-Smith, A. Burmester, M. Eibl (Eds.), Archetype, London, 2013, pp. 45-58.

[6] http://ec.europa.eu/culture/library/publications/2014-heritage-communication_en.pdf

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Cultures

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: