Discovering Samples Archives

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Cretaceous micro fossils in a gel capsule from Wyoming. Image from presentation by Patti Wood Finkle and Jean-Pierre Cavigelli. Image courtesy of the Tate Geological Museum at Casper College, Wyoming (USA).

Event Review by Dr. Joyce Townsend

Discovering Samples Archives was a webinar spread over two full afternoon sessions on 29 and 30 November 2021, organised by ICCROM to promote its Heritage Samples Archives Initiative (HSAI) which was launched in September 2020, a period immediately followed by lockdowns and restrictions in many countries which must have delayed its activities.

Updated information on HSAI can be found here. It has the following mission statement:

The HSAI aims to improve the recognition, preservation, management, access and use of heritage samples archives, pursuing the following objectives:

• Raise awareness of the value and importance of sample archives.
• Develop good practices, policies, procedures, tools and methodologies (e.g. through guidance documents and case study examples) for the management of sample archives.
• Develop a roadmap for increasing the accessibility and use of samples archives, connecting them through open digital platforms.

The HSAI has over 20 participating institutions today, and the webinar was intended to increase knowledge of the initiative as well as attract new participating institutions. Those listed are not only the institutions that have long been developing sample archives and carrying out research on them, such as the Getty Conservation Institute and Harvard Art Museums, both in the US, but others that span four continents. Such archives have locations across the globe and hold international value.

The event was introduced, and at the end also summarised, by Alison Heritage of ICCROM whose remit covers heritage science research. Three moderated sessions on the themes of recognition, management and use consisted of well-illustrated 15- to 20-minute presentations (slightly confusingly described in the program as posters) on significant but not widely-known sample archives followed by an online discussion. The final session consisted of a panel discussion on the nature and value of sample collections followed by a round-up. All of the presentation recordings are now available on the ICCROM website located here.

Reference was made throughout to the FAIR principles which are increasingly applied to cultural heritage collections and sites and which should equally apply to archival collections that have value beyond their home institution. FAIR stands for Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable. It was emphasised throughout that sample collections are often unique (natural history museum collections may include specimens in danger of extinction today or believed now to be lost), irreplaceable (such as artefacts from fully excavated, built-over or war-damaged archaeological sites) or representative of industrial processes now obsolete and difficult or impossible to recreate by reconstructing the manufacturing process at small scale.

The owners of such collections are more various than institutions in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector, and certainly include universities, private individuals, extant industrial companies and the families and family trusts of once-renowned companies that supplied materials to craftsmen among others. Many such collections have no public support, or their continued existence depends critically on the ongoing commitment and indeed survival of individual volunteers and custodians. The loss of one such collection has wider and sometimes international implications for society as well as for researchers: archaeological sites damaged or even wholly destroyed during occupation by ISIS, and recent catastrophic fires such as the one that destroyed the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2018, spring to mind.

The presentations of 15 such collections, chosen from a much larger pool of poster proposals, ranged from discussions of fairly obvious types of sample archives such as specimens in a natural history museum and examples of handmade papers representative of a whole industrialising country whose curation consists of efficient and safe storage and retrieval for researchers, to collections that also contribute to public engagement. The marble collection hall of the Academy of Fine Arts of Carrara, Italy is such a collection. It is appealingly and effectively displayed, and visitors to this private museum contribute significantly to its running costs which ensures its survival and growth.

Other collections are samples readily envisaged by conservation professionals: archives of artists’ materials, stucco or mortar samples, collections of spectra obtained under standard conditions, and reconstructions of artefacts. Not all such are in GLAMs, and when they are, they may be seen as having less value and significance in comparison to the main collection and therefore be perceived as less worthy of resources.

The speakers, in each case, discussed their recent initiatives to classify, catalogue, understand and give digital access to their collections. All the speakers were presenting recent achievements for preservation and access—but some significant collections may not even have reached this level of self-improvement. One common theme across all sample archives was the need for each distinct item to have a unique and persistent digital identifier. In other words well-developed principles of data management, the running of study collections by museums and maintaining public access to archives all constitute best practices directly transferable to sample archives.

The event was both enjoyable and inspiring, and several key messages came through again and again:

• An archive needs a mission statement and a clearly articulated identity before the wider world will realise why its survival should be promoted and funded.
• It requires a digital presence to advertise its physical presence.
• The unique and persistent identifier is the key for linking past and future research carried out on sample collections and disseminating it.
• A level of cataloguing that enables it to outlive its present custodians is vital.

You can read more about this event here:

And browse the poster gallery here:


Dr Joyce Townsend is senior conservation scientist at Tate, where she has carried out research for over 30 years on the identification and deterioration of British artists' materials, working closely with numerous conservator colleagues. She regularly archives projects and samples and devotes time to knowledge transfer within her institution. She has been IIC Director of Publications since 2009.

(Full article with images, video and links in the February-March 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 88, p. 58-60)

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The owners of such collections are more various than institutions in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector, and certainly include universities, private individuals, extant industrial companies and the families and family trusts of once-renowned companies that supplied materials to craftsmen among others.
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