Science Department at the British Museum, London.

Department of Scientific Research

Contact us

Phone: +44 (0)20 7323 8715

The Department of Scientific Research
The British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG

The Department of Scientific Research combines in-house scientific investigation with Museum priorities.

We are an interdisciplinary group of specialists and we work collaboratively across the Museum to:

  • Support the care of the collection
  • Undertake new programmes of research
  • Communicate the results of our research to the widest possible audience

We work from an extensive suite of laboratories and use a wide range of microscopy and imaging techniques, vibrational spectroscopy, elemental and molecular analysis. Our research is supported by access to extensive reference collections of organic and inorganic materials. 

We help to ensure the long-term preservation of the Museum's Collection through the use of innovative techniques such as lasers in conservation treatment and X-radiography to probe the structural integrity of objects. We have also pioneered new approaches to understand how objects deteriorate.

We are committed to disseminating our research and publish a range of books and articles each year. You can watch films and read articles about the work of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum on the World History Lab website.

Accessing the collection

The Museum makes collection material available for scientific examination and analysis by external researchers.

Find out how you can apply to access collection material for external scientific research.

Staff

History of scientific research on the collection

18th century

The British Museum has a long and distinguished association with science – the founding collection was bequeathed by scientist and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane in 1753. Sloane succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society in 1727.
About Hans Sloane

1919–1920

A Government enquiry – led by distinguished chemist Alexander Scott – was launched to investigate the 'condition of antiquities at the British Museum' after the collection was stored in humid underground Post Office tunnels during World War I. As a result of the enquiry, a small laboratory was set up to conserve Museum objects and to apply scientific methods to study the collection.

1924

Harold Plenderleith was appointed to work in the laboratory. Together, Scott and Plenderleith went on to lay the foundations of museum science and conservation in the UK.    

1926

The Museum Research laboratory's first scientific article was published in the Journal of the Chemical Society – focussing on the analysis of an organic substance found in a cosmetic jar from the tomb of Tutankhamun. The study was a collaboration between Plenderleith and Alfred Chaston Chapman, an expert in the chemistry of brewing.

1947

The laboratory moved to Montague Place as the original building suffered bomb damage during World War II. The British Museum began to expand its scientific staff. In 1949, Plenderleith and others first discuss plans for a radiocarbon dating laboratory at the Museum. The first radiocarbon dates were published in 1959.

1962

New laboratories, at 39-40 Russell Square, were opened. They were built to accommodate the expanding Scientific Research department and include a large conservation laboratory and a radiocarbon dating laboratory.

1970s and 1980s

The Museum’s Research Laboratory expands instrumental and imaging facilities, notably in the study of metals, ceramics, glass and stone. The laboratory developed a strong reputation for researching ancient manufacturing processes in many areas of the world.

2014 – now

Scientific Research moved into an extensive suite of laboratories in the Museum's World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre. The team is a distinctive international and interdisciplinary science group, with a wide range of new facilities for CT scanning, molecular analysis and multispectral imaging, that conducts research with a global reach. Our research reflects the breadth of the collection and builds opportunities for partnerships and collaboration.

Research

Research is the foundation of the department and is carried out by scientists using a variety of techniques and specialist technology. It focuses on manufacturing technologies and the different types of materials used to make the objects in the collection. These include stone, glass, metals, ceramics, minerals, gems and pigments, and organics.

A range of analytical techniques is used. They reveal what objects are made of, how they were made, when and where they were made and what this tells us about their history and use. They also reveal facts about the conservation process. 

Conservation research includes the study of the deterioration and alteration of artefacts or the materials they are made from. The results of such research allows new or improved conservation methods to be developed.

Other work involves investigating and evaluating the materials used in conservation, storage and display, as well as defining and implementing strategies for preventive conservation. This is vital for ensuring the future of the collection.

Find out more about the scientific techniques we use

Understanding the collection

Understanding the collection

Scientific investigation results in a deeper understanding of the collection, raising broader and deeper questions and helping to reveal the motivations of the people who produced the objects.

Our collection research programmes investigate the 'lives' of objects, including the origin and types of resources and their selection and procurement, technological innovation and process and the ways in which objects were used and modified.