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Cultural Heritage and the Conservation Scientist

The Scientific Method

  1. State the objective
  2. Assemble the facts
  3. Organize the facts
  4. Propose a likely hypothesis or solution
  5. Test the hypothesis
  6. If necessary, modify and repeat
  7. Take action
What is cultural heritage?
The objects that make up our past– from ancient artifacts such as pottery to modern works of art –are part of our culture.  Whether it is an important tree, an archeological burial, a small coin, or an iconic building, these objects are called cultural heritage.  Objects have physical lives and change over time in response to their environment. 

Can you name something that is cultural heritage to you and your family?

The study of the materials that make up cultural heritage and the changes they undergo is the job of the cultural heritage scientist or conservation scientist. The goal of the conservation scientist is to preserve the painting, sculpture arrow head or other cultural object for the future. The conservation scientist applies the scientific method to evaluate the materials, environments, and treatments needed to preserve the object. Let’s keep in mind that science is essentially a way of analyzing and attempting to solve problems posed by the physical world.

The examination, preservation and restoration of objects are at the heart of art conservation. There are many ways for the conservation scientist to contribute to these functions. The conservation scientist wears many hats. The conservation scientist may serve as a chemist-analyst who works to identify the paints, metals, and other materials of the artist. Sometimes the conservation scientist is a technical specialist that knows about deterioration of materials. For example when an outdoor sculpture shows signs of corroding, a corrosion engineer may be needed to help solve the problem. Other times the conservation scientist will develop and test new treatments for preserving the object, whether it be developing a new coating or testing a new cleaning method.

The conservation scientist serves with a team of diverse specialists. Usually the conservation team is made up of museum scholars, curators, conservators, and conservation scientists. As part of the team, there are always struggles and rewards. A conservation scientist has to be able to clearly translate scientific language to artists, art historians, and scholars. Sometimes it’s like speaking a foreign language. Being able to hold a precious coin or an ancient Greek vase in your hand can have its own rewards.

During this program, you will get a chance to be a conservation scientist for a day. While at NCPTT, you will work in pairs to study historic or prehistoric pottery. Your job will be to identify chemical elements within the glaze and body of the pottery. You’ll need to gather your facts, make careful documentation, and write up your observations in a report. You’ll use three techniques to study your pottery piece: microscopy, chemical spot tests, and portable X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy.

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National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]nps.gov
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119