Me and my research - Museums Association

Me and my research

Lorraine Gibson explains how the smell of collections can indicate decomposition
Interview by John Holt
You can walk into a library or archive anywhere in the world and sense a very evocative and consistent smell, so we set out to identify the precise chemicals and compounds produced when paper begins to break down and deteriorate.

After classifying chemical markers that supply details about a book or document’s composition, stability or treatment, we extended the work to polymers and plastics.

It’s a dichotomy for museums that contemporary art is becoming increasingly integral to their collections yet a lot of it is made from materials that are unstable.

In the past, museums or their trustees may have paid huge sums for Old Masters that would last for hundreds of years, certainly outliving the trustees themselves.

Now, however, they are offering big money for art that might not last more than five years. Not a surprise to a scientist, perhaps, but a huge shock to a trustee.
Plastic is inherently smelly because of the manufacturing process but we ignore all those common aromas in search of markers that will tell us once again about deterioration in order for conservation to be prioritised.

The third strand of the research concerns organic material in natural history collections. We wanted to see if we could sniff the air around objects to detect past pesticide or fungicide treatments to enable collections to be safely handled or exhibited.

This is something of a Holy Grail for heritage – to produce an investigative method that is non-evasive and which can gather information without taking a sample from an object.

People can become de-sensitised to smells so we’re looking to see if we can find alternatives. Bees, for example, can be trained to detect a particular compound when they are rewarded with honey.

But deliberately introducing insects in a museum wouldn’t go down too well, would it?

Lorraine Gibson is a senior lecturer in analytical chemistry at the University of Strathclyde

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