CSI, but for Museums

Many people ask me what I do, and the best explanation has been from a friend of mine who calls it ‘CSI, but for museums’. In short, I would say I am conserving a geological collection as part of my MRes Heritage Science course at UCL.

The next question that will spring to many people’s minds is “Why?” (or “Whaa?”) Rocks formed millions of years ago and managed to survive this long, so why should they need conserving? This assumption is partially correct. Many rocks do not need special conservation because they are chemically stable and have been around for millions, sometimes billions of years.  However, what might not be considered is the fact that many minerals and rocks were formed at significantly different conditions than that on the Earth’s surface. Generally, minerals crystallise at temperatures around 300 degrees Celsius and at pressures hundreds of times higher than the 1 atmospheres we are subject to. When looked at from this perspective, it is easy to see why some rocks and minerals may be unstable at the surface of the Earth in our cabinets and boxes.

This is where I come in. It is an established fact that certain minerals degrade, and museums especially have endeavoured to protect specimens when in their care. However, a comparatively small amount of research has been done on the chemical degradation of minerals in collections and  little into ways in which to monitor and effectively preserve them. When it comes to other types of heritage or museum collections there is more work on the types of chemical processes that change the original state of the materials – such as paper, ceramics, glass, textiles and metal. There are also many papers on the meaning of ‘condition’ in an object: dependant on how the collections are valued by society and the importance of the objects to the understanding of our global cultural heritage. Although these other areas of heritage are more researched, they are by no means fully understood. In comparison to research on geological collections however, this work probably represents a veritable cascade of knowledge!

To me, geology is an intrinsic part of our heritage. It not only contributes to an understanding of our natural surroundings, but a deeper understanding of our physical origins and of the way in which humans have used and lived with the landscape over the millennia. In addition to this, it has been an important part of my life while growing up and will continue to be. This is what drove me to study geology at undergraduate level at the University of Edinburgh, but also what inspired me not to pursue a career in industry. Instead I was captivated by a new course offered by University College London – a research masters in heritage science. The concept of heritage science was completely new to me – and later I found out it really was completely new – but it captured my imagination in drawing together my interests from since I was a child. History, archaeology and arts have always been at the core of my scientific exterior, and I felt that this course would be an ideal way to combine the them.

Due to some subsequent well-timed encounters the Natural History Museum in London kindly allowed me to use one of their collections as a pilot for my project at UCL. I am now researching a new approach to condition assessment procedures for geological collections which will be piloted on the Russell Collection, chosen due to its manageable size and fascinating cultural and scientific background.

The rest of this blog will be devoted to explaining some more about what I do – and what I find out along the way. It will also include anything interesting related to geological heritage or management of natural history collections to help raise awareness of heritage science in general; as well as more specifically what I like to call: Geo-HeritageScience.

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7 thoughts on “CSI, but for Museums

  1. Degrading minerals reminds me of hackmanite and its tenebrescence, in the ground it is one colour, as soon as light falls on it, it loses colour! Should one keep it in a dark box and not let anyone see it – lest it fades – what colour is it in the dark box, the mere action of opening the box and letting light onto it starts the process of degredation!! A bit like Schrodingers cat maybe!! I look forward to following new Geo-HeritageScience!

  2. Hi Scotfot,
    Yes, I have heard of this type of degradation – how can you tell what colour it was originally and how can you decide on its condition if you technically don’t know the original colour it was when it formed…if you want to go philosophical, does it have an original colour if we don’t know it? A bit like does a tree make a sound when it falls if no one is there to hear it, I guess! In terms of conservation, a bit of a puzzle because as you said you degrade it with any access to light so how can it be useful to anyone if no one can ever see it? Does this in itself influence the condition? Thanks for the comment, I plan to write a piece on these aspects of condition soon too. 🙂

    • To continue the story you can restore colour (not sure how much??) by putting the specimen under a UV lamp… now it starts to get complicated 🙂

      • Absolutely, I have read about this as well and the really interesting physics behind it! Take a look at: Howie FM, (1992), The care and conservation of geological materials, Butterworth-Heinemann; where there is a really nice description of the process of light degradation, if you haven’t already.

  3. Remind me to give you a sample of that sometime Jane – it is fun stuff to use for tedaching demos. The colour can be wiped out in a few seconds held in the light near the lens of a projector – it takes a few minutes to restore the colour under a strong short wave UV lamp.

  4. Pingback: My Experience at the Natural History Museum: What IS information? | Geo-HeritageScience

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