Handle with Care: From Conservation Science to Resilient Societies

Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair of AHRC, shares his thoughts on how the AHRC brings together the concept of care for others through the process of care for objects, collections and environments in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums sector.

I want to thank Ambassador Jill Morris and the British Embassy and British Council teams for this invitation to return, albeit virtually, to Rome and to speak at the first Handle with Care event at the British Embassy in Rome. This event explored the vitally important theme of cultural and natural heritage and its connection to communities, climate and capacity building.

UK Research and Innovation is the UK’s largest public funder of research.  Our mission is to be a steward of the research system – to convene, catalyse and invest in close collaboration with others to build a thriving, inclusive research and innovation system that connects discovery to prosperity and public good. The Arts and Humanities Research Council is one part of UKRI and we have a fundamental commitment to research in, for and about cultural heritage and communities. I want to trace here a journey of how our work sustains a caring attitude towards our cultural heritage, how we connect capacity, and how that fits with a commitment to the concept of care more widely.

I want to begin with our landmark investment, Capability for Collections – part of UKRI’s £300 million investment in renewal and maintenance of world-class infrastructure across the UK, but the first time this has been used for the arts and humanities community.  AHRC’s 48 projects totalling £25 million have supported projects such as:

  • CHERISH (The Cambridge Heritage Science Hub initiative) which will support the development of partnerships and collaborative projects in the area of Archaeological and Heritage Science across the Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University Library (CUL), the eight University of Cambridge Museums (UCMs) and the Department of History of Art (HoA).  (£3M)

The new desktop 3D printer in use at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge (image credit: Giuseppe Castelli)

  • Renewal and redesign of Tate’s Conservation Science and Preventive Conservation facilities, replacing ‘beloved but ancient’ facilities with a state-of-the-art facility that will enable Tate to build on its track record of delivering innovative heritage science research that is both interdisciplinary and highly collaborative.
  • This is just part of our commitment to scientific approaches to conservation.  Alongside this, we have a project of connecting capacity. Towards a National Collection is a major five-year £18.9 million investment in the UK’s world-renowned museums, archives, libraries and galleries. The programme will take the first steps towards creating a unified virtual ‘national collection’ by dissolving barriers between different collections – opening UK heritage to the world.  So, the core aim is to make sure that we take advantage of the opportunities offered by digitization but we ensure that the outcome is joined up, that it can speak across platforms and create a genuinely national digital collection.

    Still from Towards a National Collection programme film. See end credits of film at www.nationalcollection.org.uk for list of items

    We will seek to build on this by investing substantially in digital research infrastructure that will provide:

    •            FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reproducible), as well as secure digital access to our national heritage collections, both man-made heritage and collections of the natural world

    •            Access to skills and training opportunities, to ensure that our researchers have the knowledge and confidence to instigate and advance interdisciplinary research with colleagues in disciplines such as research software engineering, computational modelling / visualisation and AI.

    •            Access to EU-wide digital research infrastructure consortia and networks, e.g. CLARIN (languages and linguistics), DISSCo (scientific collections), DARIAH (digital research infra for arts and humanities)

    Creating a digital national collection. Image group left: Women’s Land Army (W.L.A.) standard issue dungarees, 2011/46, Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading | “Britain’s Golden Harvest” Buckinghamshire. 1944. P FW PH2 W48 35/29304. Museum of English Rural Life and the Special Collections University of Reading | Bidford on Avon. Mechanical power at Bickmarsh Hall Farm, 1940s. Image courtesy of Joan Broscomb. Heritage & Culture Warwickshire. Image group right: Alan of Tewkesbury, Collection of Thomas Becket’s Letters, 1174–1176. © The Board of Trustees the British Library | A Thomas Becket Reliquary, Limoges, c. 1200. Provenance: Purchased from: William Forrest. © Trustees of the British Museum 2020 | Limoges casket depicting the murder of St Thomas a Becket, early 13th Century. Gifted by Sir William and Lady Burrell, 1944.© Glasgow Museums | Thomas Becket  by and published by John Carter, published 1 July 1786. © The Board of Trustees National Portrait Gallery, London.

    What this means in practice is physical resources and spaces where high quality, systematic and consistent digitization can take place, even of complex items such as physical objects or scientific collections. And also in heritage science through the establishment of a distributed infrastructure that offers access to heritage science facilities, reference collections and expertise. Structurally, the HS infrastructure will closely mirror E-RIHS, the European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science (with its headquarters in Florence), and comprising four user platforms:

    •            FIXLAB – fixed facilities

    •            MOLAB – mobile facilities

    •            ARCHLAB – reference collections

    •            DIGILAB – interoperable remote access

    Why is this so important to us and why is it so important to society?

    This work is bringing technological brilliance and the skills of the curators together in preserving our rich cultural assets for the future, and making them available for more people right now. It will ensure that our cultural heritage can be drawn upon to create new blended, immersive experiences which will in turn have the potential to draw in new, global audiences.


    We can see the value of this through the work of our Centre for Cultural Value, who have demonstrated the value of arts and culture to wellbeing. Through research and dialogue with individuals and organisations working on the frontline of healthcare and illness management, they are working to uncover the value of aligning the worlds of culture and health by:

    •            Helping to develop trust with different communities by unlocking the power of film and storytelling to overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in traditionally underserved and marginalised communities.

    •            Affording opportunities for cultural engagement for people facing the challenges of dementia – Arts4Dementia was set up by someone who noticed that their own parent’s communication skills briefly returned, seven years into a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, after hearing an inspirational cello performance. 

    •            Uncovering examples of cultural organisations and practitioners working with healthcare students (including medical, nursing, midwifery, dental students) to help them develop their practice beyond core clinical skills. Students have been shown to gain a better understanding of patient experiences and perspectives and made notable improvements in observational skills, after integrating theatre-based approaches (with role play and improvisation), or engaging with gallery-based programmes (learning specific viewing techniques) during their training

    In future we wish to move to develop more work on mobilizing cultural assets to target health inequalities through working with the National Academy for Social Prescribing for example, and we are investing this financial year nearly £1million in this project.

    So, we began with infrastructure, moved on to the development of a large-scale digitization for conservation purposes, and then have shown that what is conserved is of fundamental importance and value for human flourishing. 

    I was delighted to have been invited to this event because for us at AHRC, the idea of Handle with Care represents the intertwining of the notion and concept of care for others with the process of care for objects, collections and environments. And I am very pleased to announce that we will shortly be announcing a new £2million call to support the UN International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development.

    Ultimately we believe that this helps build more resilient societies – societies more capable to withstanding shock and returning stronger and wiser.  And that takes us back to what UKRI really stands for, building a diverse research ecosystem increasing connectivity across disciplines and borders to generates new ideas and approaches, improving social resilience, and bringing this research into the very heart of our communities.

    Thank you.

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