Group photograph of the Conservation and Scientific Research staff, 2019

A century of science and conservation

By Carl Heron, Head of Scientific Research and Sandra Smith, Head of Collection Care

Publication date: 1 August 2019

The Museum's first research laboratory was founded 100 years ago. This is the intriguing story of the early years of conservation and scientific investigation.

More than 80 staff and students from many countries support conservation and scientific research at the British Museum. They play a key role in preserving and enriching our understanding of the collection. Next year marks the centenary of the foundation of the Research Laboratory, which was established to confront the challenges of preserving the collection and to unlock the potential of scientific investigation.

A Century Of Science And Conservation

The Museum's history is closely allied to the world of science. The collection originates from the vast array of objects acquired by the scientist, physician and naturalist, Sir Hans Sloane, who died in 1753. A physicist and physician, Gowin Knight, became head of the Museum as its first 'Principal Librarian' in 1756.

The idea of establishing a laboratory at the British Museum dates back to 1919, when the Trustees sent a request to the government Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) for assistance in preserving objects in the collection. The catalyst was damage caused by inadequate storage during the First World War. The most valuable objects in the collection were initially moved to the basement, but as the bombing intensified some important items, such as antiquities and coins, were transferred to tunnels used for the movement of mail beneath the Holborn Post Office. Many of the objects suffered in the damp and overheated environment. Staining, mould and efflorescent crystals were observed, and many metal objects were found to be in a state of serious corrosion. The DSIR turned to a renowned chemist, Alexander Scott, a past President of the Chemical Society. His remit was 'to conduct and enquiry into the condition of objects at the British Museum'. Scott had retired in 1911 but took on the role at the age of 66. His wide knowledge of chemistry coupled with a passion for art and antiquities equipped him well for the job.

Scott's report was completed in October 1919 and presented to the Trustees. It recommended that a laboratory be established, noting that 'each and every one of the Departments of the Museum stands much in need of expert scientific assistance and advice in order to carry out its aims.' His recommendation received support but only as a temporary experiment to last no more than three years and with a 'miserable allocation of £100 a year' as Harold Plenderleith, who joined the Museum in 1924, later recalled. Space on the first two floors of 39 Russell Square was eventually allocated for the rudimentary laboratory. According to Plenderleith, it was equipped with 'many pots and pans and an assortment of dishes', and with a fume cupboard,  a ventilation device designed to limit exposure to hazardous or toxic fumes, that 'could not be persuaded under any circumstances to operate.' Nevertheless, work started in earnest.

Portrait of Dr Alexander Scott seated at a desk
Herbert Arnould Olivier's portrait of Dr Alexander Scott, 1930s.

Volume 1 of the British Museum Quarterly, published in 1926, mentions the cleaning in the laboratory of 'incrustations on silver vessels' from a Tang Dynasty hoard. Scott authored a report in Volume 2 entitled Laboratory Notes: Egyptian Leather Roll of the Seventeenth Century BC. He used a solution of celluloid to soften the brittle leather to facilitate the unrolling and reading of hieratic text. Such interventions are no longer deemed acceptable. Today scientists are exploring how to digitally unroll and read the hidden text on similar objects using sophisticated X-ray imaging techniques, leaving the object in its original state.

Scott travelled widely, including to the Valley of the Kings, where he assisted Howard Carter and others in the recovery of objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Some samples were brought back to London for analysis and Plenderleith published the first scientific paper of the laboratory in 1926 on the 'Examination of an Ancient Egyptian (Tut-ankh-Amen) cosmetic.' Scott remained associated with the Museum until he retired, for a second time, in 1938, at the age of 85. When he died in 1947, Plenderleith wrote that Scott 'lived for science and truth, and found in this creed the formula of happiness'. The laboratory was officially incorporated into the Museum in 1931 and new laboratory facilities, including X-radiography, became available. Plenderleith published a book, The Preservation of Antiquities, in 1934. This was an important step in building the foundations of modern archaeological conservation. At the time, each Museum department had its own 'restorers.' These were largely non-specialists with responsibilities for cleaning and reassembling fragmented objects. It was very common to apply a varnish to objects using a thick coating of shellac to waterproof and protect them from damage. However, shellac yellows and darkens over time, obscuring the surface of objects. Plenderleith discouraged the use of shellac and recalled the need for tact and diplomacy in order to overcome the 'active antagonism' against those who challenged its widespread use. Recently scientists and conservators have used an Erbium:YAG laser to remove a shellac coating from an Egyptian wall painting dating to around the 6th century AD that was applied before it went on display in 1921 (see British Museum Magazine issue 94, pp. 48–51).

A three-story building with top floors missing due to bomb damage
39–40 Russell Square in 1958, showing Second World War bomb damage. The Research Laboratory was temporarily housed in Montague Place until it moved back to no. 39 in 1962 after it was refurbished. The laboratory remained there until 2014, when it transferred to the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.

Prior to the start of the Second World War, secure locations were once again sought and many options explored. One of the eventual solutions was an underground quarry at Westwood used to grow mushroom culture in very humid conditions. Plenderleith advised that the quarry should achieve a stable relative humidity of 60 per cent and a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6ºC). A dehumidification system was installed and thermo-hydrographs monitored the humidity and temperature, eventually achieving the desired conditions. Wooden racking was installed and a huge operation resulted in the transfer of part of the Museum's collection to the quarry. The considerable effort deployed to control the environment paid off with the objects being returned to the Museum in excellent condition.

For the duration of the war, Plenderleith lived on the Museum premises. Every night, when the air raid siren sounded, he went up to the roof with two assistants to keep watch to see if any bombs fell on or around the building. Sadly the laboratory was badly damaged by the bombing, and was rehoused in Montague Place before the refurbishment of 39–40 Russell Square was completed in 1962. Plenderleith left the Museum in 1959, moving to Rome to become the founding director of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). He lived until his 100th year.

Two men, one seated, one standing, examine copper alloy bowls
Herbert Batten examining the copper alloy hanging bowls from the Sutton Hoo boat burial with Harold Plenderleith looking on. The photograph was taken in 1951 when Batten was Senior Scientific Assistant. He retired in 1952 and received an MBE in 1953. Batten's detailed notebooks with intricate drawings of the finds are held in the Conservation and Scientific Research archive.

The legacy of Scott, Plenderleith and many others lives on in the sustained contribution and impact of the Conservation and Scientific Research departments today. The Museum has encouraged the development and application of new scientific approaches to the study of the collection as well as new methods of conservation to promote its preservation.

A woman in a lab coat standing by a microscope on a work bench
Margaret Sax using an optical emission spectrometer in the 1960s. This instrument was used to detect a wide range of chemical elements in samples of metal, glass, ceramic and other materials. Margaret Sax still works at the Museum as a volunteer.