Heritage smells (Full)

Project: Research


Experts in science (chemistry, physics, statistics), heritage science and sensor technology will drive an ambitious but realistic proposal to develop diagnostic olfactory tools for heritage science. The new devices will be non-invasive, non-contact, portable and simple to use providing real-time data; making them well suited to address cultural heritage questions and survey collections, particularly for objects where potential hazards, access issues or sampling restrictions have precluded study to date. Implementation of energy efficient sensors to tackle heritage problems (rather than large equipment) will also help reduce the U.K.'s environmental footprint. Indeed, there is an overall lack of capacity in the heritage sector both in organic material analysis and volatile organic compound (VOC) monitoring; this research addresses such issues.By merely 'sniffing' the air, questions regarding the environmental and conservation history, composition, condition or stability of objects will be answered. This will empower collections custodians and allow informed decisions about the acquisition, storage, conservation, display and long-term preservation of items, whilst also ensuring the health of those accessing public and private collections. Three key interconnected challenges have been identified where timely research will give the UK a leading position providing new knowledge, expertise and technical developments, informing practitioners in heritage-user defined problem areas. 1: The past use of hazardous chemicals to disinfect/disinfest objects presents risks to those handling or accessing objects. Within this challenge objects will be 'sniffed' to determine if they have undergone such treatments. The data will allow informed conservation /research decisions regarding handling, display, loan and access. Key deliverables include: improvement of scholarly, public and native community use and engagement with cultural heritage and collection preservation, and development of new knowledge data bases that will be used to train portable sensing systems designed for high-throughput object screening. 2: Since the beginning of last century observation and analyses have established that paper is unstable. A by-product of the deterioration process is the production of VOCs. In this challenge a well characterized set of papers will be 'sniffed' to identify target indicators that imply paper instability. A key deliverable will be the development and application of non-invasive portable sampling tools for paper-based collections that can be used to provide rapid on-site analysis of stability and risk. 3: Heritage institutions are continually acquiring objects that contain synthetic, complex and inherently unstable modern materials. The composition and condition of such objects are extremely difficult to characterise and assess. A unique approach will be taken to tackle this problem: measurement of VOCs emitted by modern materials. The data will be used to inform heritage users of object composition and materials instability; interpretation of 'object smell' has not previously been exploited in this way. A key deliverable is development of a new tool for the identification of modern materials at risk allowing mitigation methods to be implemented to retard chemical and/or biological deterioration.This proposal therefore seeks to develop VOC sampling tools to address these challenges without the need for complex or costly instrumentation. Indeed very few heritage institutions have access to laboratory equipment and such studies are impossible to implement. The outcome of this research (development of hand held portable low cost sensors) will be of wide benefit to heritage-users and open the research door to thousands of smaller institutions (museums, galleries, libraries, historic houses) and private collectors.

Key findings

"1. This multi-disciplinary research identified three key challenge areas where solutions to fundamental questions needed to be urgently addressed to provide new expertise and methods of analyses to improve on-site conservation practice and technological advancement for the benefit of society by increasing the lifetime of objects held in cultural heritage institutions, galleries and private collections. The first challenge area focussed on the assessment and examination of modern materials, that are complex, inherently unstable therefore currently causing significant challenges in heritage collections. The second challenge area focussed on chemically treated objects (see 2. Below) and the third challenge area looked at paper which, if made in the late 19th c, is also unstable and the threat to global collections is immense. In this research project new methods of analyses were developed to examine all three challenge categories in a non-invasive way. Specifically the air around an object was trapped and analysed to gain an understanding of object composition, stability and previous treatment history. This is a significant step forward for heritage science as it allowed object examination without the need to sample, or touch (even with lasers) the object. This is the ultimate conservation tool; permitting object assessment without any interaction or addition risk to the collection.
2. The pesticide challenge area is noteworthy. Ethnographic and natural history collections pose a unique challenge as they will have been treated with chemical hazards to protect them from pests. Assessing the risk of such collections is imperative for those who restore, study, conserve and even view such objects. Moreover, repatriation of objects to indigenous populations would be risky without knowing if the objects contained any chemical hazards. Here, new methods of analysis were determined to permit on-site, non-invasive object sampling by detection of vapour phase pesticides. New screening techniques were also developed to detect inorganic based, non-volatile, species such as mercury. These methods will provide custodians of collections safer handling and accessibility based on real assessment of current risk.
3. Over the course of the research, the outreach achieved was tremendous. New research collaborations were created with the Library of Congress, Washington D.C. and Arizona State Museum. Both PhD students gained new experiences as they had the opportunity to study at these institutions (extra grants were awarded to support these knowledge exchange visits). Moreover, requests for collaboration were constant over the research period with new collaborations developed with many heritage organisations here in the U.K. in Europe and in Australia. Over 20 new institutions were engaged with the research that were not initially identified as project partners, providing evidence of the impact of this work in heritage science.
4. It was hoped that a commercially available portable sampling device could be modified and adapted to provide real-time on-site measurement data for the volatiles collected around an object. However despite assessing three different kinds of commercially available portable mass spectrometers, the chemical pattern measured was too complicated to be interpreted and problems with the current instrumental designs prevented this aim."
Effective start/end date1/09/1031/05/14


  • AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council): £292,504.00


Volatile organic compounds
Chemical hazards
Chemical analysis
Display devices
Safe handling
Mass spectrometers