Heritage and Science – conceptions and misconceptions
Heritage research is one of the fundamental pillars of safeguarding cultural heritage. It must encompass a multidisciplinary approach comprising history, art history, conservation-restoration and material research. Scientific studies, from macro to micro and nano/molecular level, encourage a deeper understanding of cultural heritage in its multiple aspects: as testimony of historical, artistic and social concepts; as objects with a typical structure, materiality, and three-dimensional features; and as surfaces and interfaces with specific features and behaviours when exposed to environmental factors.
Nevertheless, research regarding cultural heritage may be misdirected. Most often, this happens due to a number of contributing factors: the use of heritage artefacts for the sole purpose to show the power and capability of an analytical technique without special value from the standpoint of the history, knowledge or conservation of that piece; the use of narrow analytical regime or tendency to focus on specific research details resulting in incomplete information that can be problematic for further conservation-restoration interventions or historical studies; and excessive sampling of historical artefacts without precise criteria regarding the research objectives or purposes.
The scientific analysis of cultural heritage raises several ethical issues including the idea that the artwork, scrutinized in every physical aspect, may be reduced to a sum of analytical results in the detriment of its aesthetic and social values. There is also a serious concern about the alteration of artworks by the analytical method, especially if sample removal is necessary.
Although in-situ analysis is already a common stage in a multi-analytical methodology, as well as a main goal in cultural heritage research development, micro-sampling is, in most cases, still needed as it presents several advantages such as the possibility to conduct stratigraphic analysis. Micro-sampling does not require to take the object out of the building, which usually involves extreme insurance values and packaging, or to move the analytical instrumentation. Also, more than one analytical method can often be employed with the same sample, providing a much more comprehensive analysis.
The issues surrounding sampling, such as reasoning, methodology and ethics, have already been formalized since some years now into a code of ethics. According to it, samples should only be removed if some kind of information can not be obtained by other means, and their size must be the minimum required for testing purposes. Samples must be kept to allow future testing and the owner or custodian should always be informed about the need and impact of the sampling.
Another important concern is the fact that the range of analytical techniques currently available for heritage research is very broad. Since each technique gives its own type of information and has its own suitability, strengths and weaknesses, a previous assessment is essential to avoid a disoriented and useless examination.
Since no single analytical technique can determine the full composition and/or structure of an object and provide valuable conclusions, in most cases a compliance of the results from several complementary techniques must be employed. However, in some cases researchers tend to use a wide range of analytical techniques without any real gain in terms of information just because it is more attractive for publication. Furthermore, sometimes, a single technique can provide the answers we are looking for.
The preservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage is a key issue that calls for the development and revitalization of research and for the implementation of integrated strategies, including novel dissemination technologies that will help with its valorisation and promotion. The conceptions and misconceptions that our field is presently dealing with have been the rationale behind the creation of the new e-conservation Journal. By addressing these pertinent issues the journal aims at becoming a reference research platform in the Cultural Heritage field.
António Candeias, PhD
Director of e-conservation Journal