Material matters: science in the museum

12 August 2021
Thérèse Harrison, Elizabeth Carter and Jude Philp describe an exciting collaboration
The Chau Chak Wing Museum is taking advantage of a revolution in scientific technology through a formal collaboration with Sydney Analytical, one of the University of Sydney’s Core Research Facilities.

The Chau Chak Wing Museum collections have long been under the microscope, sometimes literally, with the study of treasures such as a flea captured by Charles Darwin in Baha Blanca or the threads of ancient Egyptian textiles and flakes of paint from the works of European and Aboriginal master painters. 

Aside from the decorative elements of many Victorian-era slides with their wooden and paper borders with gold detailing, microscope slides have changed little over time. But scientific analysis has changed significantly, particularly with electricity causing a revolution in how microscopes operated and how results are presented. Sydney Analytical have worked on a number of collaborative research projects with the Chau Chak Wing Museum, with some outcomes directed into the galleries, to expand and enhance visitor experiences and understanding. Others have focussed on the storerooms, driven by the need to protect collection items for generations into the future.

Diagram of wooden coffin with handwritten notes

Notes made during the analysis of the coffin of Mer-Neith-it-es (NMR.29) as part of The Mummy Project.

Science on display: Mer-Neith-it-es

One of the directions of our partnership is to further methodologies for non-destructive analysis – in keeping with the irreplaceable nature of most collection items. Due to the fragility and awkward sizes of many objects, data collection often happens on-site in the collection stores. The ‘Mummy Project’ was led by former Senior Curator for the Nicholson Collection Jamie Fraser, working with Michelle Wood, Elizabeth Carter and Therese Harrison from Sydney Analytical, and examined the remains of the mummy Mer-Neith-it-es, and on the pigments and iconography of her coffin. 

Pots in medical scanning room.

The Nicholson Collection’s amphora being CT scanned by the Sydney Hybrid Theatre Unit.

Assistant Curator of the Nicholson Collection, Candace Richards, also worked with Sarah Kelloway to study the material composition of three amphora (storage jars), to further determine if they were made in the ceramic workshops of the famous Roman cities Carthage and Pompeii. These amphora are on display in Roman Spectres and final results revealing their manufacturing origins will be published soon.

Solutions to common problems: wet specimens

Jar containing a specimen being scanned by scientific device

Raman spectroscopic analysis of Macleay Collection wet specimens. Photo: Thérèse Harrison

Collaborative efforts have been directed to the long-term management of collections – not only for the benefit of CCWM materials, but with an eye to international benefit. Natural history collections often include ‘wet specimens’, whole or parts of animals kept in solutions. For our collections, the majority are in a 75% ethanol: 25% water (v/v) solution. Over time, ethanol concentration changes due to evaporation and can endanger the specimens. To systematically assess the modest 6500+ jars holding in the Macleay wet collection can take over a year as each jar must be opened, and each ethanol level tested and topped up as necessary. The viability of two portable instruments were investigated to determine if the ethanol concentration could be measured through the glass without opening the jars. The initial results were promising, suggesting the need for ongoing future research in this area.

Seeing more: daguerreotypes and paintings

Blurry black and white image of a woman, with 2 sections showing greater detail due to x-ray technology

X-ray fluorescence spectroscopic distribution maps (mercury) over daguerreotype image.

Two objects in our collections were at the point of disappearing beneath grime and the effects of age and earlier conservation. With a daguerreotype photograph, it was chemistry that revealed what was hidden. Mapping the distribution of the element mercury, a technique named micro-X-ray fluorescence was used to illustrate an area of the image lost to degradation. Clear, visually arresting results don’t just reveal the image, they are a powerful means of communicating scientific approaches to the public and as part of education programs and also pave the way to support the acquisition of more advanced instrumentation. 

The Sea Captain required cleaning and further investigation of its origin prior to its display in the museum. Conservators provided Sydney Analytical with samples to aid in the identification of materials used on the painting to assist the conservator’s work and aid their choice of cleaning solvents and other conservation practices. The process of cleaning the painting has revealed hidden indicators of the cultural context and origin of the work that require both further art history and scientific investigation. 

Woman wearing headlamp working on painting

Conservator Julia Sharp working on the [Sea Captain] painting, c.1650, University Art Collection, UA1865.16


The collaboration of the scientifically-oriented Sydney Analytical with the heritage-oriented Chau Chak Wing Museum is an exciting opportunity for teaching and research, and for the broader community and museum sector. These investigations will become a part of the fabric of the new Museum, weaving together and connecting disparate objects and stories and turning the magnifying objective to different collection materials to solve even more unknowns.

In late 2020 Thérèse Harrison was awarded the Macleay Miklouho Maclay Fellowship and is currently working with Aboriginal communities to answer their questions about the origins of resinous materials within the Ethnographic Collection. 


Written by Thérèse Harrison, Elizabeth Carter and Jude Philp. 

Thérèse Harrison will be in-conversation on Instagram Live Thursday 19 August12.30pm.

Featured image (top of page): Portable Vibrational Spectroscopy analysis being conducted on the coffin of Mer-Neith-ie-es (NMR.29) by Thérèse Harrison from Sydney Analytical as part of The Mummy Project.

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