Preserving the past to shape the future - Museums Association

Preserving the past to shape the future

The importance of funding collections-led research
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Christopher Smith
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The science that lies behind museums, galleries, libraries and archives is ever more visible. X-rays reveal hidden pictures; conservation techniques are often showcased in exhibitions; the very material stuff of our culture is an object of fascination. Researchers, curators, conservators and others are working tirelessly to preserve, understand and interpret our cultural assets to help us understand our lives and our futures.

Just as we expect the spaces where we visit exhibitions to be outstanding, so we need the equipment and facilities which support that work to be world class.

This month the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) announced the Capability for Collections fund (CapCo), a £15m investment for the refurbishment and upgrade of facilities for collections-led research, and part of UK Research and Innovation’s investment in World Class Labs.

The purpose of this investment is not only to ensure the preservation of some of the UK’s most valuable and beloved historical assets, but also to foster a future in which museums have the capacity to connect with new audiences, continue to develop expert skills, nurture talent and drive innovation across multiple sectors.

With advanced imaging and mass spectroscopy facilities, for example, museums can reveal secrets that would otherwise be missed: concealed tool marks, artists’ fingerprints, the composition of paint and pigment provide fascinating insights into how an object was made, and point the way to how it can be preserved for future enjoyment and study.

In partnership with the Mary Rose Trust, the University of Portsmouth will use a suite of upgraded microscopy equipment to shed new light on life aboard the ship. This in turn will generate new audience experiences and meet increasing demand for ‘behind the scenes’ content.

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Research facilities also play a vital role developing future talent, enriching the skills base and building a pipeline of talent – from researchers to technicians, curators to scientists and lighting engineers. Investment in facilities creates the environment for these skilled professionals to push the frontiers of research and collaborate on the technologies of the future.

Nor will the beneficiaries of this innovation be confined to the heritage sector. The Natural History Museum will be acquiring a new 3D microscope, which will increase knowledge of its own collections, but also transform the quality of scanning it can offer for other industries, and help inform us all of the challenges to our world at a time of climate change.

And this is just one example: from using medieval silk velvets as a basis for developing advanced nanomaterials to 3D computational modelling, studying collections at scale is paving the way to future advancements in areas ranging from medical imaging to digital twins.

The conservation and research facilities in our museums, galleries, libraries and archives are critical to their mission, and fully deserve our urgent and consistent support.

Christopher Smith is the executive chair of the AHRC, part of UK Research and Innovation. AHRC is committed to investing in research with cultural institutions to support to the heritage economy and make culture more accessible to diverse audiences

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