UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage


UCL wins £900,000 in heritage science infrastructure investments

27 April 2021

Through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage and partnering departments have been successful in £900,000 worth of bids for new equipment to bolster research in heritage science, collections and the built environment.

People working in the Institute for Sustainable Heritage's laboratory in Gordon Street

Across recent bids the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage has successfully secured £900,000 worth of infrastructure investments for our Heritage Science Laboratories. Prepared with departments from across UCL, the equipment will strengthen the university’s capabilities for imaging and analysis in a range of research projects covering collections and the built environment.

As part of a UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) £213M call for world class labs to expand and upgrade existing research infrastructure, the AHRC launched the first UK-wide £15M ‘Capability for Collections’ fund. Noting that galleries, libraries, archives and museums are the bedrock of our cultural significance, the fund is a landmark investment in heritage science research facilities that drive their success. A collaborative bid from UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage (ISH), UCL Institute for Archaeology (IoA) and UCL Culture was successful and has received funding for hyperspectral imaging cameras and portable x-ray fluorescence analysers for collections-focussed imaging and analysis. 

Across UCL’s academic departments and collections, the university has world-leading research expertise in x-ray and optical spectroscopic imaging and analysis. This was underpinned by obsolete equipment, with existing hyperspectral imaging and portable x-ray fluorescence instruments no longer supported by the manufacturers. The new equipment will give UCL the state-of-the-art facilities needed to drive both the scientific development of heritage imaging and applications in collections. 

From UCL’s allocation of UKRI’s Research England Research Capital Investment Fund (RCIF) to support strategic investment in research equipment, the Institute led three successful bids for FTIR microscopy equipment, a Near Infrared (NIR) Spectroradiometer, and Olfactometric detection equipment. This new apparatus expands and upgrades possibilities for sensory and materials research and teaching across the university, with multiple departments lined-up to take advantage of it.

Find out more about the equipment and intended uses:

Equipment from the UKRI AHRC CapCo fund

Bids prepared by Professor Adam Gibson (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, and UCL Department for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering) with input from Dr Patrick Quinn (Institute for Archaeology), Simon Cane and Kat Nilsson (UCL Culture) and Professor Susan Collins (Slade School of Fine Art)

Hyperspectral imaging cameras

3 based at Heritage Science Laboratory, UCL Here East
2 based at UCL Culture

Funding received from this bid will enable UCL to invest in three new hyperspectral imaging (HSI) cameras from UK supplier ClydeHSI Ltd to upgrade existing imaging capability at ISH. Recently, researchers at ISH used our older HSI system to inspect Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘La Ghirlandata’ from the Guildhall Art Gallery before the painting had full conservation treatment. As well as informing the conservation efforts, the hyperspectral images also documented the condition of the painting before conservation. Imaging revealed the under-drawing of the painting in more detail, in particular a section of handwriting. The use of HSI also showed that even though all of the figures have similarly coloured blue eyes in visible light, the spectral profile of the eyes are different, suggesting they were painted with a different pigment. 

Three cameras will be based at ISH (two matching cameras for stereo imaging and a third working at longer infrared wavelengths) and two others will be held in UCL Culture for use across UCL’s Collections and in the Slade School of Fine Art

Portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) instruments

3 based at UCL Institute for Archaeology
1 based at UCL Culture

The grant provides three portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) instruments to replace existing equipment in the Institute for Archaeology (IoA), one of which will be dedicated for shared use, reflecting the high demand for these instruments across UCL and from external collaborators. Researchers in IoA have used their existing devices to examine iconic objects including the Terracotta Army, stained glass windows at York Minster, flint tools and early ceramics from Israel and pre-Colonial America. A fourth instrument will be held by UCL Culture, dedicated for use by UCL Collections.

Equipment funded by UCL’s allocation of UKRI’s Research England Research Capital Investment Fund

FTIR microscopy equipment

FTIR Microscope with accessories for automated chemical mapping in attenuated total reflectance (ATR), transmission and reflectance modes and thermoelectrically cooled mercury-cadmium-telluride (MCT) mid- band detector.

Heritage Science Laboratory, Bloomsbury

UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage uses FTIR spectroscopy to understand composition and degradation of materials in nearly all its laboratory-based research projects, corresponding to £2.2 million of research income at the Bartlett. 

Previously outsourced to external partners, this new FTIR microscopy equipment will enable world-leading research and teaching involving complex heritage materials including built heritage and museum artefacts across a number of UCL departments, projects and degrees. 

Using FTIR microscopy at partner organisation Tate, we showed that historic plastic objects may have different compositions at their surfaces compared to within their bulk, putting them at risk of damage due to fluctuating humidity. ​​​​

Bid prepared by: Dr. Simoní Da Ros (lead, UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage), Dr. Katherine Curran (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage), Dr. Hector Altamirano (UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering), Professor Mark Miodownik (UCL Mechanical Engineering)

Use in teaching

The equipment will be used in:

Automated analysis will enable fast acquisition of large data-sets, which will be available for the application of chemometric and machine-learning methods by students. Additionally, chemical images will be valuable as visualisation tools for teaching degradation phenomena. 

Related research projects
  • APACHE (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage)
  • COMPLEX (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage)
  • UKCMB (UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering)
  • COMPOSTABLE PLASTIC (UCL Mechanical Engineering)
  • Material Studies Laboratory (UCL Art History)
  • E-RHIS (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage)

Near Infrared (NIR) Spectroradiometer

ASD FieldSpec 4 Hi-Res: High Resolution Spectroradiometer and accessories for measuring reflectance and radiance from 350-2500 nm (visible and shortwave infrared). 

Heritage Science Laboratory, Bloomsbury

NIR spectroscopy has been previously used by Prof Matija Strlic (UCL ISH) to investigate the material properties and durability of historic papers and pigments. The equipment enables chemical analysis for many types of materials, including but not limited to the study of plastics by Dr Katherine Curran (UCL ISH) in the COMPLEX research project. The equipment is ideal for non-destructively investigating the physical and chemical characteristics of museum objects, also benefitting the research of Dr Hélia Marçal (History of Art) on the materiality of contemporary art in the context of museum, heritage and conservation practices 

Replacing our existing NIR spectrometers opens up a realm possibility for use in teaching and research across UCL and the Institute for Sustainable Heritage. Not only does the new equipment increase our capabilities for analysing different spot sizes, but its portability allows for analysis outside the lab.

The portability of this new equipment opens up wider possible applications in the built environment. Radiance measurements from NIR spectroscopy offer unique functionality for evaluating moisture content in building materials, which is currently being studied by Dr Scott Allan Orr in the context of historic environments and Dr Yasemin Didem Aktas (UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering and UK Centre for Moisture in Buildings) in her work on understanding building performance. 

Bid prepared by: Dr Miriam Wright (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, lead), Dr Scott Allan Orr (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage)

Use in teaching

The equipment will be used in:

Students will benefit from readily-available NIR spectra data for training. The equipment can be used as an introduction to analytical research as it requires relatively little training and is portable (particularly suitable for site- based teaching, e.g. at historic sites). 

Related projects

Olfactometric detection equipment

OEM-2702-18607 PHASER Pro GC Olfactory Port, OEM-2702-18606 PHASER Pro Voicegram Interface Kit, Sepsolve Phaser mounting plate and GC Column 

Heritage Science Laboratory, UCL Here East (Stratford)

UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage is a world-leading centre for olfactory heritage with a £1.2m research portfolio of projects focussed on smells associated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and to preserve culturally valuable scents. This new equipment will enable us to undertake critical sensory analysis for the EU Horizon 2020 projects Odeurope and APACHE at UCL. Our olfactory heritage science has captured imaginations and attracted global media attention. As this field is rapidly developing the added equipment will support future research bids for the Institute. 

Beyond heritage applications, the equipment will also support research on: damp characterisation from the UK Centre for Moisture in Buildings; smell-delivery technologies and post-COVID smell training from UCL Institute for Healthcare Engineering; characterising the smell of fabrics from the Centre of Excellence in Human-Computer Interaction (UCLIC); patients acceptance of the smell of medications (UCL School of Pharmacy); how people interact with their sensory environment from the UCL Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geomatic Engineering; and multisensory experiments combining scent and sound from UCL IEDE’s Acoustics Research Group.

Bid prepared by: Dr Cecilia Bembibre (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage), Prof. Matija Strlic (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage), Prof May Cassar (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage), Prof. Hector Altamirano (UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering)

Use in teaching
Related research projects

Odeuropa (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage)
Heritage Smells! (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage)
APACHE (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage)
PEARL (UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering)