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Preserving our heritage

19 May 2010

Dave Watkinson pictured with ss Great Britain undergoing conservationDave Watkinson pictured with ss Great Britain undergoing conservation

New approaches to preserving and storing heritage iron ranging from archaeological objects through to ships such as the ssGreat Britain are to be examined as part of a major multi-disciplinary project led by Cardiff University.

David Watkinson, Reader in Conservation at the School of History and Archaeology is working in collaboration with Manchester University and five external partners from museum and commercial sectors to identify and test ideas for managing the preservation of heritage iron. Importantly, their approach focuses on the concept of 'corrosion control' rather than 'corrosion prevention'.

As iron readily corrodes, archaeological and historical objects are eventually destroyed during storage and display, especially when contaminated with chloride from burial or marine contexts. Only desiccation or de-oxygenation can entirely prevent corrosion in these instances, but desiccation can be energy-hungry and expensive and difficult to manage long-term. Ultimately, in a world of dwindling resources, not all objects can justifiably merit indefinite preservation. To address this challenge it is necessary to determine how long heritage iron will survive as a viable object in a given environment, and then use this information to develop preservation strategies that increase longevity according to available resources.

The new study will explore whether it is possible to define and assign lifespans to objects to help lower preservation costs and energy expenditure. The research team will do this in a number of ways. They will measure the corrosion rate of chloride contaminated heritage iron, define 'object lifespan' in relation to heritage value, relate this to atmospheric humidity and test novel ways of monitoring corrosion rate by developing two types of sensor.

They will then field test these results with partners in the museum and commercial sectors - ssGreat Britain, Mary Rose Trust, English Heritage, Museum of London, Eura Conservation and Dorothea Restorations – and produce a management model for optimising conservation based on controlled corrosion, cost and energy expenditure.

Modelling corrosion of the iron hull of Brunel's ss Great Britain in the climatic chamber at the University’s Conservation LaboratoriesModelling corrosion of the iron hull of Brunel's ss Great Britain in the climatic chamber at the University’s Conservation Laboratories

Speaking about the research, David Watkinson, School of History and Archaeology said: "This exciting and novel interdisciplinary study will generate data for developing a strong management tool to preserve heritage iron. The team expects the outcomes to have an international impact on heritage preservation and aspects of the study will transfer knowledge into other sectors. Quantifying corrosion will provide for informed conservation design and heritage management, which can take account of prevailing finance and energy availability to consider cost-benefit and carbon footprint outcomes in the preservation process."

The research will result in published guidance, data and techniques to inform management decisions for storage of iron taking into account preservation goals, cost, energy expenditure, flexibility, predictability and degree of control, and carbon footprint. The outcomes will be of direct practical use to the wide range of organisations that store and conserve large and small iron objects, both in the heritage sector and beyond.

The project is one of 16 across the country to be funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), through the Science and Heritage Programme Large Grants competition. The Programme aims to protect the cultural fabric of the UK and further develop our understanding of it.

Worth more than £6.5M in total, the awards are intended to ensure that knowledge and innovation in cultural heritage research is strengthened and that early career researchers emerge to lead heritage science in the future.

Professor May Cassar, the Director of the UK Science & Heritage Research Programme, said: "These awards demonstrate the resurgence of heritage science as a result of the investment of the UK Research Councils. They will go a long way towards building the capacity of a robust heritage science research base for the future. The quality and range of the collaborative research projects and the individual post graduate fellowships will ensure that the UK maintains its global position in heritage science."

Speaking of the Research Council’s support for heritage science research in the UK Professor Rick Rylance, AHRC Chief Executive, said: "This is great news for the development of heritage science in Britain. We have a unique heritage and expertise in its development. It is crucial we maintain skills and tackle important projects such as these. It is also excellent to see expertise in humanities and technology working so closely and successfully together."

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