History comes bang up to date

Finding out about the past has never been more popular - from TV shows to increasing numbers of visitors at heritage sites. And universities are catering for the new interest, says Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

A quick glance at the television schedules says it all: history has crept out of the dusty archives and into the public arena. Time Team, The Big Dig and Meet the Ancestors are just some of the programmes drawing very respectable viewing figures and growing the public appetite for all things historical. Lottery cash is also funding new developments on the heritage front, and visitor numbers at many historical properties are on the rise. Suddenly, it seems, we are all historians.

A quick glance at the television schedules says it all: history has crept out of the dusty archives and into the public arena. Time Team, The Big Dig and Meet the Ancestors are just some of the programmes drawing very respectable viewing figures and growing the public appetite for all things historical. Lottery cash is also funding new developments on the heritage front, and visitor numbers at many historical properties are on the rise. Suddenly, it seems, we are all historians.

The University of Kent, based in Canterbury, is hoping to tap into this public interest by launching a new degree programme in heritage science next year. But as Dr Anthony Ward, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Kent, points out, the programme is also designed to fill a skills gap in the heritage business.

"We didn't just conjure this up out of nothing," says Ward of the new programme. "We put together an advisory panel of heritage experts and asked them what they were looking for from graduates."

From these discussions, it emerged that the ideal graduate would combine the historical knowledge to put objects into context with the scientific expertise that is essential if those objects are to be properly understood and preserved.

Dr Justine Bayley, a scientist who has worked for English Heritage for more than 30 years and is a member of Kent's advisory panel, says the new programme is a very healthy development.

"The heritage sector needs people with an appreciation of scientific techniques," says Bayley. "It puts you in a better position to assess and interpret the work of specialists and make the right decisions."

When it comes to working at the coalface of historical research - unearthing, restoring and conserving documents, objects and materials that contain information about the past - it seems a love of history alone simply won't cut it.

"You need to be able to look at materials, understand their weakness to deterioration and then create an environment to slow this degradation," explains Professor Trevor Brown of Derby University, which offers a three-year BSc in heritage conservation. "You need to know, for example, that ivory is very sensitive to changes in humidity or that paper is affected by acid."

Science can also turn historical "guestimates" on their head. By studying the impurities in glass you can work out where the sand came from to make the glass, which can feed into a deeper understanding. Our understanding of medieval trade-routes changed when it was found that the blue pigment used in the Lindisfarne Gospels, created around AD700, was not lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan but from a plant common to Northumbria.

Job openings are on the rise in the heritage sector, from managing country house collections to advising planning departments or running museums. It's a sector that attracts a wide range of people, from enthusiastic school leavers to mid-career changers to retirees seeking to develop a long-standing interest.

Although science is woven into the fabric of heritage programmes at both Kent and Derby, making it rather more user-friendly than a pure science degree, some scientific know-how is essential.

"You can't duck the fact that you need some scientific understanding," says Ward of Kent University. "When we were planning this, we looked at A-level combinations and were very pleased to see there are people coming out of schools with a combination of science and humanities A-levels."

Vicky Harrison, now in the third year of her heritage studies at Derby, is among those who didn't want to choose between her love of science and the humanities. Having gained A-levels in physics, chemistry and history, she was attracted to the programme because she it furthered her interest in history but, unlike a pure history degree, had a more practical application.

"The history means you appreciate why things happened and the science gives you the means to look at objects in a pragmatic and objective way," says Harrison, who spent her project placement drawing up a disaster recovery plan for the 15th- century St Williams College on the York Minster estate. "It means you don't have a romantic view of objectives just because they're old. You can select what can be saved, what's worth saving and what can be sacrificed."

www.english-heritage.org.uk; www.kent.ac.uk; www.derby.ac.uk

education@independent.co.uk

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