Birkbeck College, founded as the Mechanics Institution in 1824 by George Birkbeck, became a college of the University of London in 1920 dedicated to the teaching of evening and part-time students. In 1938 it moved to its present location in Malet St. behind the British Museum.

The Department of Biological Sciences at Birkbeck College has within it the Analytical Chemistry group and their research activities and postgraduate courses include studies on the preservation, damage assessment, and effect of conservation treatment of cultural heritage, in particular organic-based cultural heritage. Research projects are offered to students on topics drawn from the research activities in the department and these are in collaboration with English Heritage and European conservation centres with whom there has been participation in past EU funded cultural heritage projects. Projects focus on 3 main research areas: preventive conservation, which includes monitoring of air quality and providing guidelines for safe preservation of collections, damage assessment of objects using advanced analytical techniques, and the evaluation of effects of conservation treatment using novel nano-based materials.

Past Ph.D projects also in collaboration with UCL have involved damage assessment of collagen in parchment manuscripts using Atomic Force Microscopy and extending the database for damage assessment of parchment established in earlier projects from macro to nanoscale evaluation. This has included measurement of mechanical properties and monitoring changes with RH cycling. The database on the parchment manuscripts could be of use to the SafeCULT project. For collagen –based materials it is essential to know the state of preservation of collagen as the most damaged materials would be of high risk in case of water damage. These protocols for damage assessment for collagen have now been extended to study of state of preservation of collagen in archaeological bone and we have a Ph.D project on characterizing state of preservation of collagen in animal archaeological bones in the English Heritage collection.

This work has also led to Master’s projects on state of preservation of a DNA in these bones. The overall aim is to provide guidelines for optimal environmental parameters for display and storage of archaeological animal bones. Another of our current Master’s projects involves use of piezoelectric quartz crystal (PQC) dosimeters for monitoring presence of volatile organic acids in enclosures such as micro-climate frames for paintings and showcases. This builds on work performed in past projects where the lead-coated PQC crystals were used to monitor environment in micro-climate frames. Current exposures include English Heritage sites and interpretation of data using the decision support model developed and used by English Heritage. The decision support model came about from data assembled from accelerated aged and historical samples covering a wide range of materials. The decision support model acts as an early warning system (based on traffic lights code) where red alerts conservators to the need for intervention. It provides guidelines for optimal display and storage conditions to preserve heritage objects.

Given the research background and these present activities we were glad to be involved in helping to meet the objectives of the SafeCULT project and contribute to the safe preservation of cultural heritage objects.

Monitoring micro-climate in daguerreotype using silver nanoparticle coated PQC crystals.
Monitoring of micro-climate at the back of a panel paintimg in frame using lead coated PQC crystals.
Installation of continuous monitoring by Dr D.Thickett of lead based PQC crystals in the back of a microclimate frame at English Heritage site .