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.