Heriot-Watt University: Project aims to protect Scotland’s heritage

Preserving historically significant artefacts from degrading is an ongoing battle for galleries, museums and libraries across the world.

Ambient conditions including humidity, temperature and their changes can damage or even destroy fragile materials if not managed correctly. This challenge is heightened when institutes are housed within older, listed buildings that are often prohibited from installing low carbon technologies due to strict planning regulations.

But a modelling algorithm developed at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh aims to address this problem. Through their expertise in sustainable building design, researchers from the University’s School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society (EGIS) and Craigalan Controls Ltd (CCL), an industrial partner, have helped create the ideal atmospheric conditions for some of Scotland’s most valuable artefacts held within the National Library of Scotland.

Using advanced computing systems, known as the Artificial Neural Network, they are working with the National Library to further refine a predictive modelling algorithm to accurately monitor and record the humidity, temperature and energy data for use throughout the Library building located in Edinburgh’s Old Town. This will allow Library staff to make real-time adjustments to its Building Management System (BMS), providing the optimum conditions for artefact preservation and reducing energy waste.

Dr Fan Wang from the Institute for Sustainable Building Design, is the project lead at Heriot-Watt University. He spoke of the importance of preserving Scotland’s heritage, saying: “The National Library of Scotland’s collections are of world-class importance with more than 34 million items in multiple formats.

“Most of them are rare and original books, manuscripts, and films, and they demand close and continuous control on their surrounding hygrothermal environment for preservation purpose.

“At the same time, they may be exposed to humidity fluctuations due to them being made accessible for research, further studies and other intellectual purposes.”

Heriot-Watt is working in partnership with the National Library of Scotland and CCL, which is responsible for ensuring the software is integrated into the existing Building Management System and used to digitally monitor and alter the internal environmental conditions.

Dr Wang continues: “The renovation in Building Management Systems can help maintain stable conditions and reduce the risk to the collection. It is just one of many achievements the Library has made in reducing carbon footprint and offering quality collection care.

“Our predictive modelling algorithm was first developed here in the University but we are seeing similar projects now starting to appear around the world. Most countries want to preserve their past so I can see this technology and the use of predicative modelling to become ever more present in the years to come.”

The National Library of Scotland’s Head of Estates, Ian Symonds said: “This collaboration is allowing the Library to enhance our collections care practices in real time, towards achieving net zero carbon. Working with Heriot-Watt colleagues, and in particular Dr Wang, was essential to this development. We look forward to sharing the benefits of this way of working with heritage organisations throughout the UK.”

The pioneering project was recently crowned the winner of the Partners in Energy Management category at the Premises & Facilities Management (PFM) Partnership Awards 2021.

Dr Wang continues: “As a pioneer in energy reduction in heritage sector, winning the award helps the three-way partnership alert the world to the positive impact of this technology through close collaboration among academics and industry.

“Currently the collaboration has been recognised by two Heriot-Watt partners in China, a country with long history and an abundant heritage. Qingdao University of Technology offers us access to their advance environmental chamber for the ongoing Energy Partnership between Heriot-Watt and the Library. Xi’an Jiaotong University shows their appreciation, as they lead environmental control studies in a number of key national museums and galleries. Much of their collections are ink paintings and calligraphy, which often uses rice paper. They can benefit from the experience we have learned here in Scotland, which is leading the way in this field.”

Academics at Heriot-Watt are also involved in a separate project to help protect those working on the essential and complex restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster.

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