Future Prospects

This article was published in Museum Practice in September 2012 in their issue on starting your career in museums.

Taking on a Masters of Research in Heritage Science is a big task. Especially since the subject of mine was so interdisciplinary: it is about where geology and heritage meet, presenting an interesting and continually challenging environment to study in. This is especially important as the heritage field is itself constantly evolving, in a sector with so many innovative ideas and yet so small budgets. The best strategy for future students of the heritage sector is to ‘be prepared’.

Heritage Science is a relatively new discipline. Initially the term was coined in 2006 by the House of Lords’ report on ‘science and heritage’, bringing the discipline to life with respect to preservation of the UK’s national cultural heritage. In 2011, University College London began teaching the first course in heritage science, offered as a Masters of Research (MRes). The teaching part of the 2011/2012 course is now finished and the four pioneering students, including myself, are now well into our individual research projects on which our dissertations will be based.  While studying for the masters, two of us are already involved in heritage organisations: Pimpim is a project manager in an Asian heritage fund, Gabrielle is a senior conservator in an archive. Tiphaine is undertaking the MRes as the first year in her engineering doctorate and I am pursuing the course as a stand-alone Masters.

The research projects range from analysing traditional Tibetan building materials; finding out what non-textual information users of archival objects require when accessing digitised archives; using terahertz technology to image archival objects we cannot open due to their physical condition and finally understanding what users value in museum geological collections. All of our projects are practice-driven and based on collaboration with heritage institutions such as the National Archives of the Netherlands and the Natural History Museum in London.

The heritage science domain is a highly interdisciplinary field and allows for a wide range of interests to be catered for. As students you meet a vast number of people who can help you along your way and improve communication skills with all types of professions: from artists to curators, conservators to engineers; you will find that working together is a challenge and a reward. Clashes of opinion may be common, but these enrich the creative scientific process. I believe one of the key skills for working in such a highly interdisciplinary sector is being able to communicate with this wide range of personalities and disciplines, and to learn how best to communicate and synchronise ideas.

The state of the sector’s economic affairs means that there is high competition for jobs. Having talked to fellow students of conservation, it appears that every job opening or even unpaid internship is a rush for the finish line. Luckily, in heritage science this is not so much of an issue. With two students already engaged and our vastly differing fields of expertise there will be little competition between each other for jobs, but this does not mean it will be easy to secure a future in the heritage sector.

My experience with the course has taught me a lot about the heritage sector, and although I went into the course with dreams of being a curator in a geological museum and now want to work with outdoor heritage, this shift in ambition is not due to any failing as part of the course (although I wouldn’t turn down an offer to be a curator!). If anything it has opened my eyes to the wide selection of avenues I can go down within the heritage sector and allowed me to develop new and exciting ideas for future research projects and career paths.

Looking to the future, after her doctorate Tiphaine would like to continue to work in terahertz technology, possibly as an independent consultant or working for an archive and using the technology she is pioneering. Gabrielle would like to see her current role become more research focused and ideally sees herself coordinating and stimulating further projects with the help of the MRes in introducing her to scientific practice. Pimpim and I would like to work towards further qualifications, either taking the form of an MPhil or PhD. My ambition would be to continue to work within the heritage sector but take a step back from collaborating only with museums and extend this to the outdoors, looking at cultural landscapes and our natural heritage.

To achieve our ambitions we have realised that one of the key issues is to engage with heritage professionals and organisations from an early stage. For me, becoming a member of the Museums Association was one of the first steps, as well as a member of the Institute of Conservation. In addition to this my project involves collaboration with as many professional societies associated with my field as possible. I would highly recommend this approach to anyone looking to enter the heritage sector, as even if job opportunities do not abound you will find you learn much more about your subject and other, new and exciting aspects of heritage you never even knew existed.

Are You Collecting for The Future?

This article was published in the July 2012 issue of Rockwatch Magazine – the club for young geologists.

What does your geological collection represent?

It’s a big question, and it could be a number of different things: the geology of the country, area or town you live in, a set of beautiful colourful and fascinating objects that please you when you look at them or a wealth of scientific knowledge just sitting there ready to be unlocked.

My collection represents my childhood, my fascination with beautiful natural objects and the realisation of the wonderous, boundless knowledge that can be gained from each and every specimen. My collection represents the journey I took to become who I am today (although I still have far to go!).

To me, the meaning of my collection is something very personal, but other collections – like at the Natural History Museum in London and its great mineral gallery – may mean something entirely different. I see the past few hundred years of scientific discovery embedded in those rows of cabinets, and the histories of the people who donated specimens to the museum in the vast corridors of storage behind the scenes.

Collections mean different things to different people too. People will value collections differently and for many reasons, but not just in monetary terms.

Take Sir Arthur Russell, the 6th Baronet of Swallowfield Park near Reading who lived from 1878 to 1964. He was fascinated by minerals from a young age, and at 8 years old he had already visited his first working mine. From then on, he was hooked. His passion lay in piecing together a collection that represented the whole mineralogy of Great Britain and Ireland, and managed to create one of the most comprehensive collections of British minerals to date. His collection became extremely important and well known, and after his death even universities all the way across the Atlantic in the USA wanted part of his collection!

The collection meant everything to him: “It is my earnest hope and desire that this collection upon which I have bestowed so much loving care and so much of my life shall remain intact and be well cared for wherever it finds a resting place”, a quote from Sir Arthur Russell. Arthur’s collection now resides at the Natural History Museum in London in the hope that it would be kept in perpetuity, meaning that it will remain here forever.

The task of keeping objects in the way they were donated is harder than it sounds because all objects and materials will change over time, no matter how careful you are. This type of change is called degradation, and is caused simply by factors such as wear and tear through use, the storage environment (such as high or low temperatures or humidity – the amount of water in the air relative to the temperature) or the amount of light something is exposed to. These factors can cause changes such as breakage, crumbling or fading which alter the condition of the object relative to its original state in which it was given to the museum.

To help slow the process of degradation (a practice called conservation) museums come up with ideas to assess how the material’s condition has changed compared to the state it was originally documented in, and use this to decide how to conserve the material.

Think about your collections. Do you think they will last 100 years and end up in a museum? If so, what might you do to help make sure people can appreciate them like you do, and see the full value of your collections?

See http://www.russellsoc.org/russell.html or http://www.snh.gov.uk/about-scotlands-nature/rocks-soils-and-landforms/fossils-in-scotland/fossil-code/ on how to collect responsibly, or ask your local museum how to best care for your specimens when you get them home. If you would like to know more about the work I am doing take a look at https://geoheritagescience.wordpress.com/ .

Sir Arthur Russell and the Preservation of a National Collection

This article was Published in the Geologists Association Magazine in June 2012 (Vol 11 No. 2).

I started collecting at a very early age. I was a toddler when I began to pick up my first rocks from the beach with my mum and dad, seven when I created my first properly displayed geological collection and eight when I won my first prize with Rockwatch for my ‘mineral museum’.

Sir Arthur Russell (1878-1964), the 6th Baronet of Swallowfield Park near Reading also began collecting at a very young age and by the time he was eight years old had visited his first working mine, a trip that helped develop a hobby and a passion that would stay with him for the next 78 years of his life. His stunning collection evolved into one of the most significant British regional mineral collections to date, comprising approximately 13,000 specimens and is one of the Natural History Museum’s largest and most significant stand-alone collections.

Russell collected almost half of the specimens himself; developing relationships with owners of other mineral collections and workers at important geological sites where he acquired many scientifically significant specimens that otherwise might never have been publicly available. Today, many of the localities he collected at have disappeared; consequently Russell’s specimens hold integral information on the geology, geography and cultural history of these sites.

The collection was left with the Natural History Museum in London on his death, as requested by Russell – to the great annoyance of other institutions, such as Harvard. In his will, he conditioned that the collection be stored in perpetuity, together in its original ten oak cabinets with his cataloguing system. The association of Russell’s original cabinets, labelling and cataloguing system mean that his collection does not only represent a near complete record of the mineralogy of the British Isles at the time of assimilation, but also an important historical and cultural resource.

The practice of keeping an object ‘in perpetuity’ is complex. To preserve something exactly as it is for ever is impossible, a problem all conservators and curators will be intimately familiar with. In heritage collections it is a fact that objects will become more fragile with time and the institution holding them will do their best to ensure the object is in the best condition relative to its original state. This process may involve preventive conservation measures to ensure that the possibility of degradation is limited.

To a casual visitor, it may be difficult to imagine the need to conserve a mineralogical collection. The truth is however that some minerals do degrade, sometimes causing catastrophic damage to the specimen or even to those around it. Because of the nature of the Russell Collection, this kind of damage may not only have implications for the scientific integrity of a specimen, but also the historical context. Mineral degradation can affect associated labels, rendering them unreadable, or worse, completely disintegrating them. In the case of Russell’s collection, part of its uniqueness lies in the labels handwritten by Russell himself in his characteristic script, so preventing loss of any aspect of his collection is essential.

In a climate where museums are under tough economic pressure, with severe cuts to funding and staff it may be more difficult than ever for museums to ensure that collections receive the care they need. Without heritage collections we would lack essential information that forms part of the basis of our extensive knowledge of the world today. What makes a collection such as Russell’s so unique is the range of values that can be associated with it – scientific, historical, educational, cultural, aesthetic and inspirational. It not only provides a significant mineralogical resource for researchers across the world, but also a historical record of people and places, that without the collection we may have known much less about.

Looking back to my own collection, (although far from the stunning host of Russell’s specimens!) it provided me with the notion that I wanted to work in museums with other geological collections. Since being introduced to The Russell Collection, it has inspired me to continue to pursue my aim through studying an MRes in Heritage Science at UCL and I am now about to embark on a project focusing on Russell’s Collection at the Natural History Museum. Through the project I hope to learn much more about museums and how to care for collections as well as how to contribute to the preservation and awareness of our great national geological resources.

For more information on The Russell Collection, The Natural History Museum or the work I am doing please visit: http://www.russellsoc.org/ , http://www.nhm.ac.uk/ , or https://geoheritagescience.wordpress.com/.

Geodiversity and A Sense of ‘Place’

Maybe it’s why I have such an attachment to Turner and van Dyck. Maybe it’s why I did geology. But it’s certainly why I want to work with natural heritage and the outdoors.
I have always had a strong sense of ‘place’ in the landscape. I was raised in a town in East Lothian, a beautiful area of Scotland with rolling hills, great Carboniferous geology and a strong sense of history in the archaeology of the area. I also spent a lot of time across Scotland looking at rocks in various place as well as visiting many castles and historic houses and gardens as a child with my mum. Later when studying geology at university we had at least one long field trip a year, many of which were to Scotland and all of which were to stunning areas of natural beauty. I think this helped develop a strong sense of ‘place’ in me, in completely natural and ‘untouched’ environments of which you find many in Scotland, and therefore remains somewhere I think I will always want to return to.
So it is no surprise that artists who paint landscapes make me feel so happy when I look at them. I can stare for ages at the scenes, a moment captured in time, which encapsulates parts of the natural and human landscape at the time, and implies that the people working the land are as intrinsic to it as the trees and the rivers that run through them. Interestingly enough, Geoscientist (the fellowship magazine of the Geological Society) also had an article this month that touched on the subject of painting the dynamic and geological landscapes of the 19th century. The article focuses on Thomas Moran, who was different from Turner or van Dyck in that he painted landscapes generally devoid of human interactions, focusing on the natural forces that shaped the landscape such as water and wind. It was also due to his personal interest in geology that made him delve into the realms of his artistic subject, and I think that oddly enough the interpretation of the natural forces in his paintings make the environments almost more surreal, and some have compared his paintings to Dante’s Inferno and his journey through hell. But don’t let this put anyone off who fancies a quick jaunt into the geological countryside! I think that in communicating the actions of natural forces in creating the landscape at that time – and still probably today – it gives the onlooker a sense of wonder and awe.

Geodiversity is extremely important. It describes the diversity within abiotic nature and gives it a name with which people can relate to the idea that it is important. Biodiversity is a ‘buzz’ word and wherever it is used people will automatically feel that this ‘place’ is to be conserved. What about the geology of the area? Not only the geology but the records of the geomorphological processes that have created the landscape we see today on top of which the archaeology produced by our ancestors has barely scraped the surface. Without this diversity we would not be able to live on this planet. It describes the beginning of the Earth and life on the planet; the massive processes that have formed our continents and oceans; the minerals, rocks and fossils that hold out mineral wealth in the form of ore and fossil fuel resources; the climates the planet endures many of which we have learned to thrive in such as rivers, coastal environments, glaciation, deserts and finally the record of continual processes like weathering and formation of soils.

We value these diverse materials, landforms and processes in many ways as the resources that the Earth’s geodiversity gives us is used in every aspect of life from manufacturing almost everything to art materials (and inspiration) to household goods like toothpaste, plaster and of course fuel. We therefore value these resources for their economic and functional purposes, and in tune with this for their research purposes – without research into these materials we would not have these resources to exploit and use in out daily lives. With research also comes education, we need to pass on our knowledge of these resources to future generations and hope that they can get even more information out of these than we previously have. We have already discussed how artists have used landscapes as inspiration for many works of art, but  the aesthetics of geodiversity can extend to tourism – many people travel from all over the world to climb mountains in Scotland and other areas across the world – but the landscape is also of importance to the people who live there all year round. As I began this piece, the landscape and ‘place’ of my area of Scotland is very important to me and holds lots of great memories of which the geology is an intrinsic part of them. Therefore we also associate with these areas cultural values, across the world there are geologically important sites that attract spiritual value to landscapes or forms such as Uluru in Australia or the North American Indians to areas of Central North America. This links with the history of the people who have been associated with the landscape through time, recorded in our history books as well as archaeological remains (as I mentioned are present in my local area too). People interact directly with the landscapes they are attached to and many like to collect pieces of their ‘place’ to keep with them at all times. I think all humans have minor cases of kleptomania, but some definitely more than others. People who collect part of our geodiversity do not have to assign meaning to the objects, and definitely do not have to alter the object in any way from the original state in which it was found. This makes geological collections very different from other collections in that they are still very much part of the landscape they came from when they have been in a collection for 100 years or 2.

In my personal collection, a lot of the specimens are from places I have been and collected them from in Scotland, making the majority of the collection Scottish and attached to that ‘place’. Some of the material has been bought or given to me by other collectors, but the main value to me is that I have personally found many of the specimens. Other famous collections and collectors have specific interests that can sometimes be related to a specific ‘place’ such as Arthur Russell’s collection held at the Natural History Museum in London (NHM). His collection represents Britain’s mineralogy and holds many of the best examples of British minerals. I am currently working with this collection and I always get more excited and awed when I remember that these amazing minerals are from where I live, or better still from somewhere I know and have been in Scotland. I recently got very over excited when I found a (not even particularly visually stunning) specimen that was from the area of my geology dissertation on the Isle of Skye and part of the metasomatic zone around the large granite intrusion of Beinn an Dubhaich at the centre of my area. Funnily enough, of all the visually stunning and historically important specimens I have held and worked with in his collection so far, that is the one I remember the most.

Some museums do capitalise on local collections, such as Wanlockhead Museum of Lead Mining in the Leadhills, Scotland which not only helps you discover the geology of the surrounding area (including getting down to do a bit of gold panning) but it also has the mine and the old miners homes open to the public to help visitors understand and connect to the entire history and culture of the area. As a child I visited Wanlockhead many times and always thoroughly enjoyed it. The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh houses a vast mineral collection, not much of which is now on display since the renovation and opening last summer. I know from discussion with the research curator of mineralogy there that the collections held, studied and continually collected are focused on Scottish material but this is not reflected well in the public displays of the museum. The museum’s public display focuses on educating the public about the formation of the Earth and the geological processes that have shaped it since then. The gallery is very good in my opinion and has some great specimens on display, but personally I feel that the museum is missing out on a fantastic opportunity to get people involved in what’s out in their back yards! Edinburgh especially has fantastic geology on its doorstep (Arthur’s Seat) and by simply connecting visitors with what’s right there in front of them could easily give them more inspiration to go out and learn more about it. I know from Russell’s collection at the NHM that Scotland has a wealth of beautiful and fascinating minerals and rocks out there – so why don’t we see them?

I can’t answer the question now, but I can’t help but feel that we could learn a lot from understanding the links between ‘place’ and geological collections better – and even between other ‘places’ and heritage collections. Is there anything to gain from better linking together collections with localities to benefit collection’s management, educational and scientific point of view? Lets hope someone finds out soon!

Science and Heritage: Seeking a Sustainable Future

Here is an article I wrote for Museums and Heritage Online Comment section recently, addressing the students’ role in the future of the heritage sector: http://www.mandh-online.com/in_focus/content/1883/science_and_heritage_seeking_a_sustainable_future

“Heritage science is an emerging field. It combines many disciplines that really come together with two main purposes… both scientific and social… and engage[s] a range of disciplines to do that effectively.” Professor May Cassar, Director for the Centre for Sustainable Heritage at University College London (UCL) and Director of the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme.

Dr Matija Strlič, Senior Lecturer and Course Director of the MRes Heritage Science at UCL, explains: “Heritage science is about understanding heritage on various levels, the knowledge of the stories that the object can tell from a chemical level to a personal one but also something that spreads over to an interdisciplinary understanding of heritage management.”

Until recently, the science of heritage was disparate and fragmented. The field was in decline with less research funding available from the European Commission. This matter began to be addressed towards the end of the 20th century when pan European conferences began to be held on the subject of science and heritage.  Independently, the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee chose to consider Science and Heritage in their 2005/6 programme of inquiries.

Prof. Cassar stresses how the heritage sector was lucky to have an inquiry shine a light on heritage science, particularly the issue of declining resources in the sector. This was preventing knowledge and expertise from being effectively passed on to new generations. The inquiry did not only coin the term ‘heritage science’ but its recommendations encouraged the development of courses to train and develop younger heritage professionals to deal with the demographic time bomb in the sector.

Prof. Cassar says: “All courses in the heritage sector should aim to extend the research and evidence base to enable better decisions on heritage management and use of resources.” Courses should challenge the ‘hands-off’ approach; heritage science should be open to as wide an audience as possible. But how useful are university courses in heritage science compared to professional experience?

Gabrielle Beentjes has been a senior conservator at the National Archives of the Netherlands for over four years and currently studies heritage science part-time at Masters level. She feels that the course is extremely useful to the heritage sector and especially for someone at her professional level. “It makes the heritage sector more aware of the possibilities of science,” she says, and hopes in the future to be more involved in co-ordinating and stimulating research through the skills the course has taught her.

According to Dr Strlič, “the biggest benefit courses will bring to the sector is that of a broad view of important research questions, and the ability of graduates to question, identify and answer real research needs in the field”.

But what is the future for the students of heritage science? In an age of austerity do new graduates fit into a sector that is littered with budget cuts?

Dr Strlič feels that it would be wise for heritage institutions to build capacity now, to embrace more conservation practitioners, including heritage scientists, in the future. Prof. Cassar notes that for this to happen, the heritage sector will, in the future, need to rely on itself more as the Government has been singularly lacking in moral leadership.

In an age of austerity, prospects for graduates might seem grim, but it is hoped that the heritage sector sees enough merit in the need for heritage science. With fresh approaches, it can look to itself for moral guidance and to provide new opportunities.

Heritage Sites and Landscapes: A Conservation Enigma?

I have a question for you:

How can we conserve something that is constantly changing and evolving like a natural/historically important landscape or site?

The environment is constantly changing. Conserving something that has been made by nature by definition should mean conserving the process that made it and will continue to make and change the environment. Change IS heritage, it is because of change that we find these different societies and landscapes. So how do we begin to get around this conundrum?

Think of a cave system, carved in limestone from millions of years of water action – the percolating of slightly acidic water into a karst landscape that eventually forms massive underground warrens where stalactites and stalagmites grow, where the water creates layers of precipitated calcite on the floors in rivers of immobile minerals. The beauty of the place is astounding, and contains secrets we want to explore. The calcite rivers contain fragments of lost societies, the bones of animals they ate, the heads of their spears and ultimately the bones of the people themselves.

We can date these bones using carbon dating and also date the caves by looking at the limestone. What age were the tiny shelled organisms that made the rock, what layer do they chronologically fit into (where geographically do they sit in relation to the land and other rocks?). We can also use other forms of chemical dating such as uranium series dating to find out the age of the rock and the relative age of the bones encased inside it. What does this tell us? It gives us another insight into the history of not just our own archaeological heritage but also the long-term history that surrounds us. Just by knowing there is limestone around it is a good assumption to say that this areas was possibly once marine – we can tell whether it was deep or shallow marine (was it part of a delta or was it sea floor) from looking at the microscopic images of the limestone up close: the types of organisms that made it up and the minute grain chemistry. Are the grains pure carbonate material or is there silicate there? If so, why and when did it form? Was the cement between the grains precipitated while the sediment was being formed or was it something that happened much later in the rock’s history? What can these facts tell us about the environment that it was made in and can it also tell us how that environment changed through time? You bet it can. The questions go on and on…and each one helps us build up a picture of a much longer and more detailed history of the area, not just when or why humans might have used it relatively recently (geologically speaking).

So, back to the question. The landscape has changed drastically since the formation of the Earth. When it really comes down to it what are we trying to do? Capture a single moment in history and preserve it? To really do this you are looking at shutting off the water supplies, eradicating the wind and putting the area in an air-tight container to stop oxygen reaching with the environment. And then, well, who is to say that even at this extent that  you will have completely stopped any change? So we have to come up with some sort of happy medium. Um…

First off, what is is that we really value about the landscape? Understanding what current humans value about something begins to help us understand what parts of it we want to conserve. But because this is an evolving landscape, then isn’t it even more likely that values will change? Or is it? A crucial point that heritage scientists need to consider is what will people value in the future? Things change, including fashion, trends, politics and the change is reflected in everything we do. Scientific research will be carried out where the money is, which is where the interest is by the funding bodies which is almost certainly governed by global trends. Predicting this is difficult, but there are ways to try for example: what questions do you have now about a site/landscape/collection/object that cannot be answered by current technology? Collections in museums can be influenced by these types of ‘future’ values by asking such questions. Maybe the Association of Professional Futurists or the Centre for the Future of Museums will have some more interesting answers – they recently carried out a project asking people to identify trends or events that they see as possibly a turning point in the future of museums and writers were then asked to put these into context in a story.

Maybe when it comes to something like a landscape the best way to conserve it is to change with it. To understand and respect the nature of the land and conserve the change itself. If it is a changing and eroding coastline then generate ideas of ways in which to evolve with it, how can we build sustainable towns in this area? Make people understand that something that they see now may not be here in 20 years time, but that this is not something to feel sad about but something to evolve alongside. We can help record and cherish what we see now so that future generations can see what it was like and also value the change that they then see: build up a chronological sequence of a landscape for others to enjoy, for example.

“An outstanding example representing major stages of the Earth’s history, including the record of life, significant ongoing geological processes in the development of landforms, and significant geomorphic or physiographic features.”This is the statement that UNESCO designated the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site (WHS) as back in 2001. As you can see the WHS values the ‘ongoing’ nature of the processes at the site and this is something that is to be cherished and conserved in itself. The Jurassic Coast has several threats to the conservation of the site, but has a great management strategy in place:

“Our vision is that World Heritage status will inspire people to celebrate, enjoy, value and learn about the Dorset and East Devon Coast, and to safeguard it for future generations in the best possible condition. We wish to ensure World Heritage status becomes a vibrant strand of the life of Dorset and East Devon, and the wider south-west, benefitting local people, visitors and the environment throughout the area.” Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site Management Plan 2009-2014. The 8 point plan is a great example of enabling the landscape to continue in its natural evolutionary journey, extending sustainable access and support to communities and helping them generate greater understanding and appreciation of the science, nature and value associated with their heritage.

For me a basic understanding of the natural environment for everyone is crucial. If we help people to understand a landscape and the nature of change then it should be easier to help preserve it in any way that we can. If preservation involves keeping people away from a certain area I feel that this defeats the purpose of the heritage site even being there, what is the point is we cannot learn from it? People need to see and understand and value something before they can consider caring for it. I think that the best way to understand value is to ask the people involved with it on a local, national and global scale. From there we can see a range of generations and geographical locations of value which could give us a good idea of the future values too. Then we can engage these people with the environment and the concept of continual change, which makes it so beautiful.

Pigeon Poop and Deterioration of Our Cultural Heritage

Image not mine - not being used for commercial purposes

Image not mine - not being used for commercial purposesAs if we need another reason to hate pigeons.

While researching a report as part of the MRes, I recently stumbled across a paper discussing the contribution of pigeon droppings to the deterioration of our cultural heritage. The course had taken us on a trip to a historic house to carry out a week-long field research project. I was looking at salts and their movement through porous solids, such as building stones, bricks and mortar and subsequently using the literature in trying to find out what salts I had discovered. Unfortunately, my results were inconclusive, as I suspect my FTIR ATR spectra were not clear enough and due to lack of time and sufficient sample size I was unable to chemically test all of the samples for sulphate, nitrate, ammonia, chloride or phosphate. It was however, likely that my samples contained primarily sulphate and/or nitrate, indicating a probably ground water source of moisture in the building.

The study was based in Madrid on the Panteón de Hombres Ilustres where there was a 30cm thick layer of poo! The sampling site was chosen due to the lack of exposure to rainfall, and the building material was a porous limestone which is a common building material worldwide. Pigeon droppings as a source of soluble salts had already been established, but it was not considered a major factor in building deterioration, leading to the further detailed study carried out in this paper.

When leached by water, pigeon droppings were found to form salt solutions with high acidity. The salts identified in the solutions included sulphates, chlorides, oxalates and the previously known phosphates and nitrates. Salts cause damage to buildings through crystallisation within the pores of the building materials when the water they were dissolved in evaporates. The cycles of evaporation and dissolution of the salts cause stress within the pores (they will expand when the salts crystallise) and eventually loose cohesion and can cause eventual loss of structural integrity of the building if left untreated. The water containing dissolved salts will either be from the ground or rainwater ingress due to problems with the roofing or foundations of the building. When the salts attack the mortars between stones and bricks you can generally see crumbling and flaking plaster and depending on the salt visible white efflorescence’s on indoor wall surfaces.

The paper discussed how sulphates can form as a result of reaction between atmospheric sulphur dioxide and building materials containing calcium and oxalates can be formed through lichen metabolism or applied organic patinas on the surface of the building material. The study demonstrated that these are not the only ways that these types of salts can be formed on the outside of buildings, with dissolved pigeon excrement possibly a much larger deterioration factor than previously thought. The presence of the salts as mentioned above was also accompanied by acidic solution, meaning that further deterioration of the limestone was apparent with etching of the surface of rock forming minerals such as calcite.

This leaves us with the question of how do we get rid of the damn pigeons? Not only are they unsightly and a health hazard but their poo is actively destroying out precious heritage! With a count of 5,000 pigeons in Trafalgar Square in London back in 2004 how do we manage this pest? Thankfully, this is not a question that is going completely unanswered, there have been many initiatives to help lower the pigeon count in London and undoubtedly elsewhere in the world (such as Edinburgh!), just Google ‘pigeon population London’ and you will find a whole host of articles relating to this. And if you have a chance to read, you have to love the Pigeon Blog.