Versioning history

3 minute read

Stonework

Dr Jonathan Kemp is Researcher and Lecturer at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation in the Faculty of Arts. An expert on stone heritage and related materials, his research explores open software/hardware versioning systems as models of conservation practice, as well as materials conservation. Here, he discusses new possibilities that machine learning and drones can bring to conservation, and the emerging partnerships between universities and government to conserve our heritage.

I’m quite horizontal. I’m not very hierarchical, although I do lead when I need to. Conservation is a kind of feedback mechanism: you’re not only getting feedback from the materials you’re working with, but from the people you’re working with – students, colleagues and community, who bring insights or contributions that the conservator could never generate alone. Conservators are always encountering new agencies because all cultural heritage is both unique and divisible.

Jonathan Kemp

The Grimwade Centre works on a different calendar to the University, and we work in a different way. My projects are largely driven by object-based learning so we’re constantly dealing with both tangible items and intangible meanings from both theoretical and practical approaches. The Grimwade Centre delivers research translation and commercialisation through Grimwade Conservation Services, which provides conservation for the University’s collections and external clients. We work together in both teaching and in some research. I’m involved a little in some of their commercial projects and help when they don’t have the skillset I do.

For example, they have a project from Rupertswood, the home of the Ashes. There is a marble fountain there that got quite badly damaged. Grimwade Conservation Services has been engaged to restore it, so as it’s in my areas of technical expertise I’ve been involved a bit in finessing the plan for how to re-assemble it from the many pieces it’s in.

More recently I’ve advised on something for the University itself, at Wilson Hall on Parkville campus. There’s a series of protected concrete bas-reliefs on the side of the building from the late 1950s. I’ve just been up on a cherry picker to do a condition check and from that help plan conservation work to help them survive for another 50 or so years.

One research project I’m trying to get off the ground via the Australian Research Council is to use machine learning algorithms to interpret the condition of Australia’s stone heritage. The idea is to put multi-spectral sensors on drones. The information those sensors are taking in, in real time, will generate a 3D model, which identifies and maps the types of stone decay encountered. Nowadays, drones are used for macro-surveys in archaeology to map forms in the land such as old settlements. But these macro surveys when applied to stone heritage are not looking at the condition of the material itself.

The project is about mapping at a much higher resolution and in a more computationally intelligent way of understanding stone heritage. And then, from the results, you can target the forms of care you need to do. It’s cost effective. And you can periodically fly the same routes to monitor the site every five years or so. This data can then be related to things like climate change where observed patterns in things like biodeterioration can be mapped over to changes in the kinds of pollutants in the air – for example, certain kinds of lichens like sulfur and others nitrous oxide. So you can identify different patterns over time, and it helps transmit knowledge about the state of heritage, land, environment and atmosphere.

For that project, I’ve been talking to Parks Victoria’s rock art heritage specialists who work with Traditional Owners. Everyone seems quite excited about the project as it will hopefully deliver an efficient and adaptable toolset to help safeguard important sites such as in Gariwerd. That’s where we are as a profession, looking beyond our roots in a narrow conceptual history to embed wider understandings and practices for taking care of culture.

The thing about working with objects is that feedback takes place in a recursive spiral. Whether the people involved are in the classroom, the community, or experienced conservators, everybody is learning together. You’re learning together not only about the items and events themselves but also their more immaterial and associative forms of meaning and culture and this all modulates how you engage with that cultural heritage.

If people and things don’t like something, they’ll tell you. Just as in any conversational network, there’s a good bidirectionality.

One of my goals is to reconfigure the idea of what conservators do by aligning behaviours in the field with some of the more horizontal concepts and workflows found in free software and open hardware practices. Recharacterising conservation in this way demonstrates how conservators are explicitly involved not only in caring for culture but in its continued production, so they need to be better involved in the policymaking of any memory institution.

As told to Anders Furze

Banner image: Executing a conservation survey on a stone bas-relief from the 3rd century CE at Taq-e Bostan, Iran.

Featured image: Applying an experimental consolidant to the exposed chalk core on part of the Roman & Medieval London City Wall.

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