Naomi Luxford surveying an item in English Heritage's collection

Conservation science

Conservation science research underpins the decisions we make to control light, humidity, insects, mould, pollution, temperature, vibration and cleaning methods, all of which cause objects to deteriorate.

Where there is a lack of evidence for conservation methods we carry out our own research, often in collaboration with other institutions. Find out more about some of our current research projects.

Protecting historic photographs: Darwin's Daguerreotypes

A daguerreotype of William Darwin, Charles and Emma Darwin's son, before and after conservation treatment. The untreated image is obscured by droplets formed due to the glass corrosion.

A daguerreotype of William Darwin (December 1839 – September 1914) before and after conservation treatment. The untreated image is obscured by droplets formed due to the glass corrosion.

Down House, is home to six daguerreotypes (a type of photography invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre) of Charles Darwin's children. One of these is the only known image of Charles Darwin with another person - his son William.

These photographs, formed of a thin layer of silver nanoparticles on a copper sheet, are very early examples of daguerreotypes. Sadly their original cover glasses have deteriorated, leaving the images underneath obscured. To restore them, English Heritage conservation scientists have been carrying out research and treatment.

First, the original cover glasses were analysed. This revealed sodium formate on the glass, a product that can cause glass corrosion, which in turn can damage the image underneath.

Conservators therefore replaced the glass on each daguerreotype, which helped to reveal the splendour of the images underneath.  Despite this treatment, we are aware of cases in which even modern replacement glass has rapidly deteriorated. Therefore, English Heritage's investigation into ensuring the long term protection of these wonderful items continues.

Managing Mould

Sophie Downes culturing mould samples collected in a comprehensive survey from 20 English Heritage and National Trust sites

Sophie Downes culturing mould samples collected in a comprehensive survey from 20 English Heritage and National Trust sites

Mould is a major problem in historic properties and is predicted to increase at many UK sites with the expected changes in the climate. Previous research has shown that many conservation methods do little to prevent mould regrowth and that several actually encourage it.

Sophie Downes is undertaking a PhD to investigate mould in 20 historic properties, its risk to organic collections, and new treatment methods. The project has produced the first mould population survey of heritage environments in the UK, and includes DNA profiling.

The project is jointly funded by English Heritage and the National Trust at Birkbeck College (supervised by Dr Jane Nicklin).

Protecting outdoor Sculptures

A test frame for a tent sculpture cover and monitoring equipment at Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire

A test frame for a tent sculpture cover and monitoring equipment in position at Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire

Although little can be done to slow the decay of outdoor marble sculpture, the fact that many of our historic houses close in the colder months allows us to use winter covers. However, we do not know how protective such covers are at particular sites, and which designs work best.

Mel Keeble has begun a PhD project to assess how effective different cover designs are. It uses analytical techniques to establish the rate of surface deterioration of covered and uncovered marble pieces. The findings will be assessed alongside the monitored environmental parameters.

The project is a collaboration between English Heritage and University College London (supervised by Professor Matija Strlic), funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Conserving Archaeological Copper Alloy and Bone

Surface damage to a Roman skeleton from Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent

Surface damage to a Roman skeleton from Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent

One of our current areas of research is on the corrosive effects of humidity and gases in showcases on archaeological copper alloys and bone. Existing studies have been inconclusive, so we are undertaking laboratory experiments to fill these gaps in our knowledge and ensure that this important evidence of our past survives. These experiments are based on methods developed during 10 years of research at English Heritage.

Extensive surveys of bone and copper alloy objects on display at English Heritage sites are being done to check that the laboratory results are representative of the real material.

This work has been funded as a Conservation Fellowship by the Clothworkers’ Foundation, London, and is being carried out by Dr David Thickett. You can download more information about the project from the link below.

An Art and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Project PhD starting in 2017 will further investigate archaeological bone and also Ivory.

Read more about the research

Conservation Science

Dr Naomi Luxford studying the effect of light on the Carlton desk at Kenwood House with Near-Infrared (NIR) spectroscopy

Dr Naomi Luxford studying the effect of light on the Carlton desk at Kenwood House with Near-Infrared (NIR) spectroscopy

Conservation science research underpins the decisions we make to control light, humidity, insects, mould, pollution, temperature, vibration and cleaning methods, all of which cause objects to deteriorate.

Where there is a lack of evidence for conservation methods we carry out our own research, often in collaboration with other institutions. Most of the research takes place in English Heritage properties. Their varied environments provide an enormous real-world laboratory to study object deterioration and the effectiveness of different control methods. The complex nature of art and archaeological objects means that laboratory experiments do not always accurately predict how objects will behave in the outside world. Measuring real deterioration rates of objects in situ is our main research focus.

Several of our current research projects are highlighted below.

See our downloadable conservation advice
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