Many cultural heritage institutions around the world hold considerable collections of historic material samples. Gathered from heritage objects, or collected as reference materials or even fabricated as replicas, these diverse collections have a unique knowledge value for the study and preservation of cultural heritage. Moreover, today ethical and legal restrictions on invasive sampling mean that it is no longer possible to take further samples from many heritage objects and sites, and so these historic collections are also a non-renewable resource.
These material sample archives present a number of challenges. Firstly, and most critically, their value is often under recognised. Secondly, they frequently lack proper description, documentation, labelling and storage – which dramatically increases the risk of physical loss and dissociation, as well as creating problems for correct sample identification and retrieval. Thirdly, there is the pertinent issue of how to improve access to the information these collections contain – ideally through open digital platforms. This is key to unlocking the huge potential of these collections for future research, since connecting the diverse information they contain would allow enhanced data mining techniques to reveal more powerful insights.
In June 2019, ICCROM convened a small meeting of institutions to discuss the challenges faced by these collections and to share experiences with other institutions.* A wide range of issues concerning recognition, physical safeguarding, documentation, metadata selection and interoperability, access and data sharing, as well as ethical and legal issues all came to the fore. These challenges are shared by many institutions around the world which hold important samples collections, and so a key recommendation of the meeting was to organize an international workshop to bring people together and build consensus on how to drive change concerning these issues as an important step towards ensuring the long-term survival and use of these collections.