The term has become widely used after 2006 when it became increasingly evident that the more traditional terms conservation science or preservation science inadequately reflected the breadth of research into cultural heritage. Heritage scientists in museums, galleries, libraries, archives, universities and research institutions support conservation (often called conservation science), access (e.g. development of new ICT tools), interpretation, including archaeometry and archaeological science (e.g. dating, provenancing, attribution), heritage management (e.g. development of tools and knowledge supporting strategic or environmental management decisions) and wider societal engagement with heritage (e.g. heritage values and ethics). Heritage science is also an excellent vehicle for public engagement with science as well as heritage.
Heritage science is seen as "key to the long-term sustainability of heritage: it is about managing change and risk and maximising social, cultural and economic benefit not just today, but in such a way that we can pass on to future generations that which we have inherited." Domains of research, where heritage science makes a particular input were recognised to be museums, galleries, libraries and archives; the built historic environment and archaeology, by the United Kingdom National Heritage Science Strategy documents.
The field still requires its literature canon and opinions on whether heritage science is a domain in its own right or a field of research diverge. However, this appears a matter of academic recognition, rather than a matter of research practice.
Heritage science is an old field of research: in his Royal Institution Christmas Lecture in 1843, Michael Faraday already pointed out how pollution importantly contributes to book degradation. The following premises appear to be of defining importance:
- Heritage science is inherently biased, as scientists, by doing research on heritage, contribute to its value: they create and popularize heritage through their research.
- Heritage science is neither fundamental nor experimental: work with actual heritage objects, building or sites cannot be repeatable because heritage is not an experiment. On the other hand, the scientific method and deductive reasoning is easily applied when working with models and model objects, which heritage scientists often do due to the high value of actual historic objects and consequentially, sampling restrictions.
Since the context of heritage is often unknown, there can be any number of variables affecting the heritage system under observation – inductive reasoning is therefore often applied in heritage science. In this aspect, the premise of heritage science comes close to social science. Heritage that is accessible, in its preserved authentic form or as a (digital) reproduction, is a "resource for economic growth, employment and social cohesion". Through improved access, heritage science therefore contributes to well-being. Heritage science is proof that there is no world of 'Two Cultures'. A scientist, researching heritage defies the existence of the divide: there can be no scientific research of heritage without a contribution by humanities research. Heritage science also successfully bridges science and culture, because it provides an attractive vehicle to convey ideas and concepts related to technology and engineering, as well as culture and society.
Heritage science is an increasingly lively science domain. Materials and techniques of the past are often very difficult to study and state-of-the-art techniques and methods need to be employed. Discoveries new to science are often the result of such endeavours, e.g. new antibiotics from bacteria discovered in the Cave of Altamira, in Spain. With its wide definition, heritage science spans a significant variety of scientific activities. In order to support conservation, access, interpretation and management, heritage science must be based on an interdisciplinary palette of knowledge, from fundamental sciences (chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology) to arts and humanities (conservation, archaeology, philosophy, ethics, history, art history etc.), including economics, sociology, computer sciences and engineering.
In academia, heritage science is often performed by scientists spending a proportion of their time on heritage-related research. The academic field, judged by the number of academic outputs published annually, is steadily increasing. This could be taken to estimate the domain size – with the number of outputs in 2014 being 6,800 (Source: Web of Science), it could be assumed that there are about 3,000 heritage scientists active in the field (publishing on average 2 academic publications per year). This goes against the generally held view that the field is small.
The proportion per country varies greatly, about 20% of researchers being active in the US, 15% in the UK, 10% in Italy, 5% France, and 5% in China (with a strong increase in the last decade).
In 2013, the Mind the Gap project, funded by the UK EPSRC/AHRC Science and Heritage Programme, reported on the drivers and impediments in cross-disciplinary research. The project found that there is no gap between rigour and relevance in heritage science research but rather that there is a continuum of activity. However, there was less satisfaction with heritage science research in relation to its impact on practice, in comparison to its academic impact.
The heritage science career paths are various. Due to the cross-disciplinary nature of heritage science, any academic background is suitable, from formal sciences, natural sciences to social sciences. Most researchers have entered the field by carrying out doctoral research in the field, which is due to the fact that there is currently no undergraduate course in this domain. Since 2010, Master's degree courses in heritage science have become available at University College London and Queens University Belfast. Many courses include elements of heritage science, e.g. technical art history is often part of art history courses, and natural sciences are often taught in conservation courses.
Since the field requires significant cross-disciplinary and transferrable skills, graduates are often able to take very complex jobs in industry and academia.
Many major heritage institutions have heritage science departments:
- Museum Conservation Institute of the Smithsonian Institution, USA
- Department of Conservation and Science of the British Museum, UK
- Centre for Conservation Research, France
- Getty Conservation Institute, USA
- Science Laboratory of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA
- The Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science, The Netherlands
- Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione e il Restauro, Italy
- Koninklijk Instituut voor het Kunstpatrimonium/Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique, Belgium
- University of Oxford - Rock Breakdown Laboratory, UK
A UK body, the National Heritage Science Forum was established to enable the 'users' and 'doers' of heritage science to access information on heritage science research, to exchange knowledge and increase collaboration. In 2016, the forum had 20 institutional members.
Several international professional associations have heritage science groups:
- Committee for Conservation, Working Group Scientific Research (International Council of Museums)
- Institute for Conservation, Heritage Science Group (Institute for Conservation)
- Royal Society of Chemistry, Heritage Science Sub-Committee
The major heritage science events (conferences, symposia, meetings etc.) are:
- Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology
- Eastern Analytical Symposium, Conservation Science session
- International Symposium on Archaeometry
- Lasers in the Conservation of Artworks
- Indoor Air Quality in Museums, libraries and Archives
- CMA4CH Biennial Meeting
In addition, conferences organised by the Institute of Conservation, American Institute for Conservation and International Institute for Conservation usually feature heritage science sessions and talks.
Journals often or exclusively publishing academic papers in heritage science:
- Heritage Science
- Journal of Cultural Heritage
- Studies in Conservation
- International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation
- Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
- Journal of Architectural Conservation
- e-Preservation Science
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- "A Brief Theory of Heritage Science". Retrieved 2016-01-08.
- "Towards an integrated approach to cultural heritage for Europe" (PDF). EU. Retrieved 2016-01-08.
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