Imperial strengthens links with neighbouring national museums


Detail of a painting of a young woman wearing classical clothing and crowned with a wreath of oak leaves. The close-up shows her face and crown.

Sketch of figure ‘Harmony’ for mosaics in Parliament Central Hall by Edward John Poynter (after cleaning).

The Imperial Network of Excellence on Science and Engineering Research for Cultural Heritage hosted its first one-day conference on 20 September.

The conference brought together Imperial researchers, museum conservators and cultural heritage researchers from organisations in South Kensington and further afield. The audience included members of the public, including some local physics A-level students.

Presenters demonstrated a wide variety of chemical, microscopic and spectroscopic techniques applied to cultural heritage objects. These including applying analytical chemical techniques to study wood degradation in the timbers of the Mary Rose, a 15th century shipwreck from southern England. Other researchers described their investigations into the inks used in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, the varnish on Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, degradation mechanisms in oil paintings from the Houses of Parliament (shown in the headline image), and the nanotechnology behind a Roman glass cup (the Lycurgus Cup) that changes colour in transmitted or incident light.

Watch the event here 

Collaboration with cultural heritage organisations

The conference was co-organised with conservators from the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum. Both these institutions are neighbours of Imperial College London’s South Kensington campus on Exhibition Road. All three organisations originate in the mid-19th century vision of Prince Albert for a cultural and educational hotspot on the site of the Great Exhibition of 1851.  

The conference also featured two invited speakers. Susan Mossman of the Science Museum surveyed the history of cellulose-based plastics, first invented in the 19th century, including Parkesine and celluloid. These materials are now again the focus of active research efforts to find renewable biobased plastics to replace fossil-based ones. Naomi Luxford of English Heritage gave an overview of the challenges of environmental monitoring and temperature/humidity control in heritage properties. In the context of rising energy costs and climate change, these questions are taking on new urgency.

SERCH network

The SERCH Network of Excellence unites Imperial researchers who work on cultural heritage objects or questions. Some members explore long term degradation of heritage materials and their conservation. The network is also developing research projects where Imperial’s very modern fields of expertise can be applied to cultural heritage questions. These include using machine learning to analyse images, developing conservation-grade polymers, or reducing energy demand in climate-controlled galleries or display cases under new climate extremes.

There are also places where cultural heritage knowledge contributes directly to modern research questions, such as investigating cellulose-based plastics, and exploring long-term material degradation mechanisms.  

Conference attendees talking to each other and reading posters during a break in the SERCH conference.

Ambrose Taylor, leader of the SERCH network said:

“It was a pleasure to see so many people meeting at Imperial College to discuss the role of science and engineering research in cultural heritage. This was the first time that the SERCH network has run an event like this, and I believe it was an enormous success. We had a very diverse audience including museum professionals, scientists, engineers, artists, researchers, PhD students, undergraduates and sixth form students. So a wide range, from those considering a potential career in science, engineering, conservation or curation, to professionals who can tap into that knowledge in order to answer their questions about how to understand and how to conserve historic artefacts. This event has sparked new conversations between scientists and museum professionals, and I am excited to be part of these.”

The headline image is part of the sketch of figure ‘Harmony’ for mosaics in Parliament Central Hall by Edward John Poynter (after cleaning). The degradation were identified by scientists at Imperial using ATR-FTIR spectroscopy. Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament. 


Dr Isabella von Holstein

Dr Isabella von Holstein
Faculty of Engineering

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