The Future of Heritage Science: SEAHA Conference Round Table


In January 2015, the IIC Annual General Meeting in London, UK included a round table discussion on the topic of ‘The Future of Heritage Science.” The panelists, representatives from the UK National Heritage Science Forum (NHSF), ICOM-CC, ICCROM, and IIC were asked to consider questions looking at heritage science vs. conservation science or technical art history; the educational component of where and how heritage science should be taught; the output of heritage science including publications and public awareness; and establishing an international network.

The January 2015 Round Table included discussions about:

  • Defining the size of the field. The field was presented as a small field, but the audience disputed this point.
  • Policy, partnership and resource sharing as grand challenges for the UK National Heritage Research Forum
  • Data gathering in order to measure needs, capacity and impact. Possible useful indicators include mapping the heritage to understand the needs, mapping the sector to understand capacity and mapping the benefits to understand impact

The discussion concluded with a summary from the panelists and the following points:

  • Focus on what we can do and not how many we are
  • Future collaboration to outline how we can define and influence policy
  • Working at different levels (grassroots up to government level) and building on strengths
SEAHA Conference round table panelists.

SEAHA Conference round table panelists.

To reflect upon this conversation another round table discussion, also titled “The Future of Heritage Science”, was organized at the 1st International Science & Engineering in Arts Heritage & Archaeology (SEAHA) Conference on heritage science at University College London (UCL) in July 2015. Panelists representing academia, heritage institutions, and industry were asked to explore three questions:

  • What are the critical issues related to heritage science careers particularly in industry, heritage organizations, and academia?
  • What a unique offer of heritage science graduates might be in terms of these careers?
  • How cross-disciplinary training can ensure that these developed skills are competitive?

Matija Strlic, professor at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, moderated the discussion and opened with the definition of heritage science. Quoting the 2009 UK Heritage Science Strategy Report 1, the field is described as encompassing “all technological and scientific work that can benefit the heritage sector, whether through improved management decisions, enhanced understanding of significance and cultural value or increased public engagement.” Strlic continued to define heritage science by looking at the size of the field, the location of scientists globally, and assessing the robustness by comparing the cross-disciplinary field to core academic fields. Following the introduction, the panelists each had 5 minutes to explore questions from their perspective in the field.

Heather Viles, professor at the University of Oxford, was requested to address what makes heritage science an academic field. She commenced by outlining 10 characteristics that make up an academic subject and then focused on what it means to be an academic subject. She suggested thinking about academic life as a series of tribes occupying a series of territories and stated that we should be thinking about the territories and not the tribes. The three most important steps we need to take to claim a heritage science territory and create a sustainable future for the field include:

  • Foster a tribal membership for our students;
  • Join or establish an international organization to mark the territory; and
  • Establish our canon, the key readings for the field.

As the foundation of the canon, Viles proposed “The Past is a Foreign Country” by David Lowenthal and “The Weathering of Natural Building Stones” by R. J. Schaffer.

Kate Frame from the Historic Royal Palaces was requested to address the interest of heritage science for heritage institutions and the challenges and opportunities of cross-disciplinary work in heritage organizations. Frame presented from the perspective of a heritage site organization, a building historical environment, private sector organization that is responsible for the management of heritage assets that are common to built historical environments. Heritage science is important for planning, developing and validating to support conservation management.

Limited heritage science posts internally within in heritage institutions, but the growth area is within consultancies for major conservation projects for heritage site organizations. Independent Research Organisation (IRO) status signals an investment in research in this field.

Robin Higgons from QI3 represented an industrial perspective. Higgons opened with the landscape of heritage science reiterating that it is wider than we think. He touched on the industrial opportunities and the similarities between the labs, techniques and challenges between heritage and industrial fields. He encouraged the audience to think about the heritage science field in a much broader sense linking back to territory brought up by Viles; to think about opportunities for real impact; and to think about transferable skills. He concluded that heritage scientists have a breadth of experience and an ability to look at problems and address them.

David Arnold, professor at the University of Brighton, was requested to address why heritage scientists become heritage entrepreneurs and the challenges of working in or establishing cross-disciplinary business. As a professor of computer science, Arnold draws a parallel with academia and being an entrepreneur acknowledging a different level of risk. He encouraged the audience to think about the business proposition: Who benefits? How? Who pays? Arnold concluded with how SEAHA can help including establishing a peer group for mutual support, convincing politicians about the need to invest, demonstrating value, encouraging economic strategies from sustaining heritage, and creating interdisciplinary teams.

Scott A. Orr, SEAHA CDT student, was requested to address the challenges and opportunities of cross-disciplinary education and the unique skills that are acquired in the process. Orr discussed management, communication and harmonized goals as challenges in cross-disciplinary education with comprehensive skills and knowledge transfer, increased impact and streamlined directness of implementation and efficient resource use as opportunities on behalf of the first SEAHA cohort. Orr concluded with, “We are in a volatile society enveloped in a rapidly changing environment: adaptability and innovative thinking provides heritage scientists with the necessary edge to address the unknown challenges of the future and a clear pathway for the long-term development of our field with increased relevance and ever increasing ties between research, practice, and policy.”

May Cassar, professor at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, was requested to address the broader policy issues and the immediate policy challenges. Cassar opened with, “If we do not engage effectively with policy makers than we will make slow progress in creating a future for heritage science.” She outlined three areas of immediate policy challenges: policy process of the government, policy engagement among professionals, and individual involvement with our own institutions. Cassar concluded with what we can do within the heritage science domain to contribute to policy development:

  • “We need to get organized!
  • “We need to concentrate on working together at an international level and to represent heritage science effectively at that level.
  • “We need to face outwards and not inwards.
  • “And we really have to believe that even though we are growing stronger, we need to believe that we can punch above our weight.“

Discussions and questions from the audience included the following topics:

  • Comparing and contrasting heritage science and the field of forensic science
  • Raising the profile of heritage science, taking a global perspective and needing a cohesive voice internationally
  • Establishing the academic criteria, philosophy and uniqueness of the field
  • Broadening the definition and interpretation of science
  • Linking being an entrepreneur and starting a business with the emerging field of heritage science

Strlic concluded the round table discussion by summarizing the key points:

  • Get organized
  • Continue professional development and engaging through a professional association
  • Engage across a wider landscape beyond academia
  • Develop transferable skills
  • Engage with policy makers at the institutional level
  • Promote heritage science in our institutions

The full videos of the panelists’ presentations and the open floor discussion can be found on the SEAHA Conference Round Table. The conversation about “The Future of Heritage Science” can continue on the Heritage Science Research Network (HSRN) website:



Williams, Jim. 2009. “National Heritage Science Strategy Report 1: The Role of Science in the Management of the UK’s Heritage.” [Accessed 26 November 2015].


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