Heritage Smells

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Unlocking the secrets of heritage smells


Clues to the condition of museum exhibits and antique objects are to be revealed in a research project led by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow- with the use of technology for 'sniffing' the artefacts.

Scientists and conservators are aiming to develop hand-held, portable devices for taking samples of air surrounding items such as sculpture, tapestries and books and separating out the components to see whether they contain anything which could be harmful to the objects or to human health.

The three-year project is looking at adapting technology which museums, archives or individual collectors could use to carry out their own assessments of their collections, without touching the objects.


The project is based around 3 challenge areasPAPER, MODERN MATERIALS, PEST CONTROL TREATMENTS.


Dr Lorraine Gibson, a Senior Lecturer in Strathclyde's Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry, is leading the research. She said: "We're looking to understand the science behind our heritage and the smells of valuable objects. We all know that when we walk into a library there is a very distinct musty smell but we want to know what creates the smell and what it tells us about the objects stored inside.


"The sensors used to detect the smells will generate signals.  This in itself is not hard to do but a key objective of the work will be correctly interpret the ‘smells’ and link parts of the detected signals to the objects themselves.  The work will be split into 3 challenge areas that will examine emissions from collections such as (i) paper-based materials; (ii) modern and contemporary art and (iii) ethnographic, archival or natural history objects.  The data correlation required to link pollutant emissions to objects will be a challenge but it is not insurmountable if done systematically and scientifically.


AHRC Chief Executive Rick Rylance 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 experts in humanities and technology working so closely and successfully together."





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