UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage


Change or Damage? Effect of Climate on Decorative Furniture Surfaces in Historic Properties

Within historic houses furniture surfaces are often richly decorated which can lead to an increased risk of damage due to the different environmental responses of materials.  These composite objects are extremely difficult to study and are well known to be at great risk of damage. 

However, there are a number of unanswered fundamental questions.  How dry (or damp) does the environment need to be and for how long for damage to occur? How fast does damage occur? Do cycles and fluctuations in humidity cause damage? What damage is light causing - is it just fading or are structural changes caused? There are also questions about what constitutes damage. 

Understanding how conservators, curators and the public feel about these questions can also inform decisions about how to manage and care for the collection and its display environment. 

The project is split into a number of tasks:

Damage functions in the literature: A search of the published damage functions for materials related to decorative furniture surfaces (e.g. panel paintings).

What is damage? Understanding the point at which changes to these surfaces become damage and how this varies between conservators, curators, scientists and the public.

Model materials study: Using accelerated ageing in a chamber to understand the key causes of deterioration and whether these can be monitored.

Monitoring trial: Using a variety of non-destructive techniques to monitor objects whilst on display to determine most suitable monitoring techniques.

In situ case study: Long term monitoring of changes to objects whilst on display under real conditions, this will also include an assessment of the aesthetic impact of modern scientific equipment on historic collections.

Material modelling: Integrating the sensitivity of objects with the damage caused and display conditions to create a model which can examine how climate change will affect these collections.

Dissemination: This will include presentations and publications, the website, tours of the case study property, an exhibition, a damage seminar and conference to share the research outcomes. 

Project partners

The research is being led by UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage with English Heritage as a project partner, and will run from May 2010 to April 2013.  The project has an Advisory Board with representatives from UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage, English Heritage and The National Trust and is funded by the Science and Heritage Programme.

Further information can be obtained by emailing Naomi Luxford.


Naomi Luxford
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