Undertaking portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry of metallic objects at the Wellcome Collection, June 2012. Image copyright: Wellcome Images

Wow! As you can see, we had a busy time at the Wellcome Collection Elements – Gold, Silver and Bronze  night. I was running the assaying stand, where we using a very nice Olympus Gold Xpert portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to analyse the composition of people’s jewellery. Thanks to Andrea Sella of UCL Chemistry department I had three very helpful and thoroughly nice assistants who were able to help me talk to all of the many people who came to see us.

The Elements night was part of a series of free events looking at various groups of elements, filling the Wellcome Collection’s many floors with all sorts of activities, displays, talks, demonstrations, interactive thingies and music of all kinds. I got to see the products of activities such as pewter casting, smelting copper in a microwave (!), turning copper pennies to silver and then gold, and coating the inside of test-tubes with fine silver layers because all of these were brought along to be assayed! In fact I think we had a lot more people wanting to examine the things that the had made on the night than those who wanted their jewellery assayed. I suspect this was in many ways better, because people were able to interrogate the objects they had interacted with and to discuss them in greater depth.

We also had a bunch of assaying images, and bone-ash cupels of both modern and archaeological extraction, that illustrated pre-modern assaying techniques. I was very pleased with how well my chemistry assistants took to discussing these with interested people, and at how interested people were in finding out about past uses of the elements in question. I ended up in at least one long, detailed and ultimately quite philosophical conversation about the origins of metallurgy which I really enjoyed. Nothing beats explaining complicated and uncertain evidence of only partially explained phenomena to members of the public to really test and resolve your own understanding!

I was initially concerned that, being stuck at the back of the Medicine Man gallery out of sight of the main galleries, I wouldn’t get many visitors. I needn’t have worried – thanks to a number of the other presenters sending me people and mentioning my stand we were always busy. The Wellcome Collection staff were fantastic, able to provide everything we needed and even feeding us before the night began. I for one had an absolutely fantastic evening, and time flew by. The pXRF coped with continuous use between 7pm-11pm admirably, undertaking 193 analyses without a single problem, which is approximately one every 80 seconds! I left for home at 11pm feeling exhausted, but pretty happy. Congratulations to the Wellcome Collection and the many UCL people from across departments who put the night together – a definite success!

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