The aim of conservation science is to find better ways to preserve the historic collections and interiors far beyond their original lifetimes. The silkworm, for instance, produces a cocoon which is designed to last only a few weeks, but our conservators work hard to ensure that the fragile hangings on a state bed can last for hundreds of years. To help us achieve this, Historic Royal Palaces is home to a team of scientists and technicians, working closely with our conservators and curators.
We conduct scientific research to make sure that our work is founded on the most up-to-date knowledge. We need to confirm that our technical conservation treatments will stand the test of time – so we analyse all the materials to check that they are chemically stable and will be safe to use with valuable and delicate historic objects for many decades into the future.
Discoveries and detective work
Through our scientific research we discover new and often surprising information about the collections and buildings. We can find out exactly how old an object is, or where it was manufactured, by examining and identifying the materials from which it was made or decorated. We can work out which parts have been restored or replaced over the centuries, even if the written records haven’t survived. We can do this ‘detective work’ by removing and analysing a tiny sample – and sometimes without removing a sample at all– so the scientific techniques we use have much in common with the forensic scientist. Harnessing new technologies also helps us to tell the stories of these objects, giving our visitors a perspective never before possible.
We are constantly discovering more about how and why the collections have changed over the years; for example how they fade or become brittle and fragile. This helps us to work out better ways of slowing down deterioration. We work with our preventive conservators, using many different types of sensors and detectors to tell us about the environment inside the palaces – how levels of temperature, humidity, dust, pollution, light and even vibration can affect our collections adversely. Our research helps us to develop sustainable methods for the ongoing display of our objects and interiors for visitors to enjoy both now and in the future.
To do all of this, we draw on a wide range of scientific disciplines particularly chemistry, physics, and the applied sciences such as imaging, colour science and environmental science. We work closely together with other heritage organisations, such as English Heritage and the National Trust, and we also work on joint projects with university researchers and students. We have a scientific laboratory at Hampton Court Palace where we conduct tests, analysis and experiments.