UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage


Heritage Smells!

Heritage Smells! - On the value of gaseous emissions from heritage objects in non-destructive diagnostics

This innovative project (2010-2013) looked at the diagnostic value of the smell of heritage objects. We are all familiar with the smell of old books, but it has only recently been shown that the compounds emitted by paper provide clues about its composition and condition.

Using appropriate portable tools, which have recently become available, it should in principle be possible to "sniff" objects in non-laboratory conditions and thus provide valuable information to the end-users.

The increased interest in volatiles emitted by heritage objects (i.e. their smell) also comes from the fact that they constitute indoor-generated pollution. This is known to affect materials and objects in close (or not so close) contact but needs to be understood better. Also, some objects, particularly ethnographic objects, may have been treated with pesticides and their safest identification could be by instrumental sniffing. There are a number of applications for this approach and the Heritage Smells! project will lead the way towards introduction of small portable sniffing devices into conservation and management practice. 

UCL ISH are particularly involved in research on book and plastic material identification and condition assessment based on non-destructive determination of volatiles emitted by the objects. To do this, we use gas chromatography and mass spectrometry in the laboratory, and a portable mass spectrometric tool to be used in situ, in libraries, museums, archives and galleries. The data needed to be instantly available, and development of appropriate data processing tools was part of the task.

Main image: Emissions from heritage objects are of high interest due to their potential diagnostic value - they could reveal the identity but also the state of degradation of heritage objects. For their analysis, gas chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry is a key tool (the photo is symbolic).

The large collaborative project was funded by the UK AHRC/EPSRC Science & Heritage Programme.


University of Strathclyde

Principal Investigator: 

Lorraine Gibson 
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University College London


Matija Strlic, UCL ISH
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British Library


Barry Knight 
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British Museum


Catherine Higgitt
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National Museum of Scotland

Project Partner: 

Jim Tate
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National Archives of Scotland

Project Partner: 

Linda Ramsay
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Project Partner: 

Chris Prior-Jones
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English Heritage

Project Partner: 

David Thickett
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Key features of the Heritage Intelligence system:

  • Simple to install and configure with a highly accessible user interface and tools for management of the system
  • Self powered wireless nodes with a long operational life (including power scavenging technology)
  • Ability of the network to reconfigure itself and adapt as objects are relocated (or moved in transit) or sensors redeployed
  • Ability to support multiple sensors and sensor types in a single sensor node (e.g. temperature, relative humidity, light, pollutants and mechanical monitoring such as shock and tilt)
  • Built-in intelligence, so that the network can adapt measurement regimes, identify events and generate alerts.

The Heritage Intelligence System works on the basis of numerous wireless nodes communicating with each other and each carrying several sensors, as required. The number of possible configurations is unlimited.