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SEAHA: Science, Engineering, Arts, Heritage and Archaeology

A milestone for heritage science.  

In 2014, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council approved funding for the Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA). This represents the largest single investment in heritage science training in the UK so far, with the remit to train 60 PhD graduates by 2022.

By 2017, 32 students had started their academic studies within SEAHA, enrolled either at University College London, University of Brighton or University of Oxford. These institutions provide the academic leadership of the Centre. They are joined by more than 60 heritage organisations and companies, half of which are UK-based, which makes SEAHA currently the largest heritage science training initiative globally. This article looks at what makes SEAHA so exceptional and why now is a suitable time to develop capacity in the field.

 A heritage scientist examining an artefact using a 3D digital Microscope
Carolien Coon examines the stability of rapid prototyping materials using a 3D digital microscope © Matija Strlic (UCL)

The need for SEAHA

The Centre for Doctoral Training is being funded with the aim to focus a diffuse and growing research community and to address an identified skills gap. The scale of cultural heritage in the UK, the size of the business that it supports, and its potential for growth in the UK and internationally, make this country an attractive destination for SEAHA graduates. Heritage tourism supports 466,000 jobs and contributes £7.4 billion a year to the UK economy. Sustaining this contribution requires heritage science capacity to maintain the country’s museum, library, archive and gallery collections and its historic buildings. The conservation, repair and maintenance sector in England alone is estimated at £4.7 billion, and SEAHA graduates’ skills and understanding of the industry sector make them ideally placed to take jobs in companies, or even start their own.

In 2011, the English Heritage labour market intelligence on archaeological specialists (which includes archaeological and environmental science) predicted an 18% loss of capacity in the following 5 years: 9.4% of the workforce was already over 65. Of the current SEAHA cohort more than one in three are women, an exceptionally strong representation compared to only 13% in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce in the UK.

 Professor May Cassar, Director of SEAHA and Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, affirms:

SEAHA graduates will be well placed to support the leading role that the UK heritage sector has in the international tourism market, as well as to spearhead the academic development of UK heritage science and enhance its global leadership.

A heritage sceintist examining a historic icon
Hend Mahgoub starts the hyperspectral imaging process exploring the distribution of pigments in a historic icon. © Adela Shah (UCL)

A unique training experience

The size and scope of SEAHA are matched by its unique approach to training. In the current changing job market, transferable skills are as important as research skills. Students develop their skills in collaboration with supervisory teams drawn from the academic, heritage and industry sectors, with the aim of learning how research is carried out and used in environments that are significantly different to academia. Currently, SEAHA engages a body of more than 100 supervisors, representing an exceptionally strong network within which students thrive and develop collaborations that will help them build future careers.

Research topics range widely from the development of archaeological analytical methods to collection management, and from hyperspectral imaging and visualisation to robotically enabled thermal insulation of domestic buildings. Therefore, cross-disciplinarity is a crucial element of training and builds on the equally diverse backgrounds of our students. Approximately half have a conservation or archaeology background, and the other half has science or engineering degrees. Consequently, SEAHA training removes barriers between disciplines that historically have existed in the field. Candidates join us as scientists or conservators, but they leave us as heritage scientists.

A landmark for the field

While managed by academic institutions, SEAHA has a Steering Committee, chaired by Historic England, involving experts from industry and heritage institutions. Its Advisory Board is further populated by senior policy makers and domain experts, chaired by Sir Philip Campbell, Editor in Chief of Nature magazine. These bodies support the development of research and policy impact of SEAHA and its future direction.

SEAHA represents a blueprint for heritage-industry-academia collaboration in our field. The range of projects, the innovative approach to training and the opportunities that are being developed for the SEAHA graduates are unique.

says Barney Sloane, Head of Strategic Planning and Management Research Group at Historic England and Chair of the Steering Committee of SEAHA.

On the level of individual projects, the evidence of this effort is in unusual and inspired partnerships: an SEAHA student is supervised by Historic Royal Palaces, IBM and University College London, while another is currently working with the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, Analytik Ltd and the University of Brighton. A particularly international project is supervised by the Getty Conservation Institute, the Dunhuang Academy and the University of Oxford.

SEAHA is making a further mark in the field by enabling a range of initiatives beyond training, such as the development of infrastructures. SEAHA supported the UK’s involvement in the European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science. When established, this will represent the largest distributed research infrastructure in the field supported by a number of eminent partners, including Historic England.

A van comprising a mobile laboratory for SEAHA, with Brighton pavilion in the background.
The Mobile Heritage Lab at the Brighton Pavilion. © Matija Strlic (UCL)

Where to meet SEAHA

There is a distinct possibility that SEAHA has already visited a historic site or a museum collection near you: in 2015, SEAHA invested in the UK-first Mobile Heritage Lab, a vehicle equipped with instrumentation for archaeological, environmental and digital heritage research. With more than 50 individual scientific instruments, it enables students to take heritage science to UK museums and sites, rather than the other way around, as is often the case.

Another unique characteristic of the mobile lab is that it doubles as a public engagement space: in whatever context heritage science research is carried out, there is always an opportunity for public engagement. At the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2016, the students engaged with more than 500 children and families in experiments involving microscopy, photography and radar imaging. At a recent event organised in collaboration with the Royal Society of Chemistry, 60 schoolchildren were engaged in experiments involving imaging and ink-making, thus learning science through art, heritage and archaeology. In June of this year, SEAHA will engage diverse audiences at the British Science Festival in Brighton.

The Mobile Heritage Lab supports learning and research through its mission to mitigate the inequality of access to heritage science and infrastructure. Anyone can apply to use the mobile lab, and it is free to use, under one condition: a proposed project needs to be of interest to at least one SEAHA student. In the last 10 months it has been used to explore tapestry conservation, to carry out stone degradation research and to explain imaging techniques to the public, to mention just a few examples.

Read about the SEAHA research projects, students’ successes and Mobile Heritage Lab tours at the SEAHA website

Students and school children gather at the SEAHA mobile laboratory outside Burlington House, London.
SEAHA students engaging with schoolchildren at Burlington House in London, under the watchful eye of Dr Josep Grau-Bove, SEAHA cohort activities coordinator. © Josep Grau-Bove (UCL)

About the author

Matija Strlic

Matija Strlic

SEAHA Deputy Director and Professor of Heritage Science at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage.

Matija has a PhD in chemistry and joined UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage in 2017. He established the successful MRes Heritage Science in 2010.

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