Discovering Samples Archives webinar

In September 2021, we launched a call for submissions for an online poster session on heritage samples archives as part of our Heritage Samples Archives Initiative (HSAI). The response was impressive, with 40 posters from 22 countries accepted for publication. From these, we selected 13 posters to be presented at a two-day online poster session and roundtable webinar, held on 29 and 30 November 2021. Making the choice was difficult, given the high quality of the submissions, however the selected posters showcase the diversity and value of these precious and yet critically under recognised scholarly resources.

The webinar programme focused on three specific themes:

  • Recognition
  • Management; and
  • Use of heritage samples archives

In addition, two invited keynote speeches from Thilo Rerhen (The Cyprus Institute) and Kerstin Lehnert (The Earth Institute, Columbia University) provided additional insights on fundamental philosophical and ethical principles concerning samples archives, and new opportunities for linking them across digital platforms. A roundtable panel drawn from partner members of the HSAI also reflected on the presentations delivered, as well as key take-aways in terms of priority tasks to address going forward.

We are extremely grateful to everyone who submitted posters and participated in this event – they contributed to a very stimulating and insightful two days delving into the little-known world of heritage samples archives.

All the accepted posters are now available in this poster gallery, accompanied by a short 90 second audio presentation by the poster authors introducing their sample archive and highlighting its unique value. Recordings of the webinar are also available.

We hope you enjoy exploring these fascinating archives!

Summary of the webinar

To give a flavour of the webinar presentations and discussions, here is an excerpted transcript of the final summary, which captures some of the key messages arising from the sessions:  

Keynote speeches by Thilo Rerhen and Kerstin Lehnert

Thilo Rerhen (Science and Technology in Archaeology and Culture Research Center, The Cyprus Institute) laid down important philosophical and ethical foundations on which to start our thinking about definitions of samples archives and the responsibilities of preserving them – particularly given most research is publicly financed, and cultural heritage is a common good. He also reminded us of the rapid growth in the volume of samples collected as a by-product of archaeological and heritage research – hence the pressing need to address this issue through collective institutional action.

Kerstin Lehnert (The Earth Institute, Columbia Climate School, Columbia University) gave a talk about the application of FAIR data principles (Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reuse) to natural science samples archives: not only to the data but also to the physical samples to make them findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. Importantly, she reminded us that it requires not just tools but a culture change within this community. Her vision for an internet of samples may yet seem far off for cultural heritage samples archives but the message was clear: the technology exists. We, the community, need to use it and come together, as working across disciplines is the way to go.

Poster sessions on recognition, management and use

Session 1  Recognition

In the first session on recognition, different types of samples archives were explored. From a collection of samples taken from perhaps one of the most iconic heritage objects in the world, The Last Supper (The Gallone Collection at the Politecnico di Milano) to a reference collection of artistic papers (the Paper Sample Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), a local natural history collection (Tate Geological Museum at Casper College in Wyoming), and an archaeological research collection (Biak na Bato Archaeological from the Philippines).

Importantly, these case studies illustrated the different ways in which archives might be recognized – from collections deemed important by governments at the national level to those known and used by specific groups of researchers, to those which are known to the local community, some of whom volunteer their time to help care of them.

Session 2 – Management

In the second session on management, the arrangement and cataloguing of these archives were explored, as well as their supporting archival policies and information management tools. The collections presented demonstrated different stages in the development of archival management and highlighted the challenges faced by the collections.  

We heard from those taking care of collections in Colombia (at the Erigaie Foundation), Sweden (at the Swedish National Heritage Board), Slovenia (at the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, Restoration Centre) and Norway (at the Munch Museum).

A common theme running through all these diverse presentations related to the management challenges, not just of the physical samples, but of the data related to them, particularly how to organize and share this information.

Session 3 – Use

The third session was devoted to the issue of use. The collections presented in this session showcased diverse uses, including research, education, and practical conservation interventions, and the different groups of people who are users of these archives (researchers, artists, students, conservators, historians, archaeologists, etc.).

We heard about the Gabinet del Color in Barcelona, Spain and how this is supporting decisions around the restoration of the city’s historic façades. We saw how the collection from Wadi Al Helo (WAH) Habitat from Sharjah is actively being used to deepen the understanding of ancient building techniques and inform conservation plans and interventions. Neeta Das from the Mansara Lime Centre in India reminded us of the diversity of materials used in the construction of heritage – in her words ‘the one constant is variety’ – and how their sample collection is supporting the use of traditional materials to find compatible, sustainable solutions. And finally, the marble collection hall of the Academy of Fine Arts of Carrara, Italy stretched our notion of what an archive can be – and showed how a sample archive can be used for public communication, education, and events!

Roundtable discussion

The key message arising from the final roundtable discussion was the need to communicate these archives more widely. Moreover, we will only come closer to realizing the full value and future potential of these resources if we can connect and share them.

ICCROM is committed to supporting this community through the Heritage Samples Archives Initiative. We have been listening closely to the many suggestions and comments raised during the webinar, and it is certainly clear that there is potential to achieve a lot of what we dream of, if we work together. So, where do we start? Looking to FAIR data principles, this means starting with ‘F’ for findable. The HSAI is working to develop an online register for samples archives, which will be launched in 2022. The objective is to create a space in which institutions can register their collection, and provide basic information concerning its content, access policy and who to contact. Participation in the register will be free so we do hope that many institutions who take care of such collections will consider participating in the register, to let people know about these important archival resources.