The Logan Museum of Anthropology is home to hundreds of thousands of objects, but did you know there are also over 28,000 photographs, negatives, slides, and glass plates in the museum? The photo archive documents over a hundred years of field and lab work, illustrates the history of anthropology as a discipline, and provides a window through which exhibition and museum practice can be studied through time.
This collection is the focus of a current National Endowment for the Humanities-funded preservation assessment and student workshop. Gary Albright, a photograph and paper conservator from Rochester, N.Y., was in residence at the Logan Museum for three days last week to assess the collection’s condition and make recommendations for preservation and digitization. He also presented a workshop on photo preservation to Beloit College students and staff. When asked about which photographs he found most intriguing, Gary pointed to a collection of black-and-white photos (technically speaking they are brown-toned gelatin developed out prints) of Native Americans taken in the early 1900s. The series is reminiscent of the work of Edward S. Curtis, the well-known ethnologist and photographer of the American West and of Native American peoples. These romanticized views include images of a Native man in a birch bark canoe on a perfectly still and reflective lake and pictorial scenes of a man wearing a feathered headdress set against a backdrop of teepees.
The photo archive also contains hundreds of acetate and nitrate negatives taken during archaeological field schools in the 1920s and ’30s. These negatives present a serious conservation dilemma. As they age, they give-off gas acetic and nitrate acids which harm objects in their proximity and are health and fire hazards. Albright recommended that the negatives be scanned as soon as possible and the originals frozen to slow the rate of deterioration. Other photographs have curled and require humidification so they can be safely flattened. Working with anthropology and museum studies student Emily Starck`14, Albright created a humidification chamber to demonstrate the humidification process in the workshop (see photo above).
Ten Beloit College students, three museum staff members, and an anthropology department faculty member attended the full-day workshop. Participants learned about the principles of photograph preservation and were then able to put these principles into practice through a series of skill building hands-on labs. Participants practiced mounting and hinging techniques, surface cleaning (see photo below), and flattened photographs removed from the humidification chamber.
The college museums are laboratories for hands-on learning, but learning from a practicing conservator provides fresh perspectives and an infusion of new knowledge and skills.