Conserving the Archive

A photographic archive serves to preserve collections of photographs. Inevitably one of its responsibilities is therefore to conserve those pictures. In 2001 Elizabeth Martin and Martin Barnes of the V&A wrote an article for Source about the underlying conservation challenges that face an organisation that wants to look after its photographs. These include appropriate environmental conditions but also being realistic about whether an item can be preserved 'in perpetuity', in their case giving the example of Heather Ackroyd and Daniel Harvey's grass photograph Presence.

What comes across in both their approach and that of Susie Clark is pragmatism. Small changes, for example using paper sleeves with folds rather than glue, can be important for the long term stability of photographs. A large collection amassed over many years and stored in a variety of ways could present a daunting task; how to tell what is most endangered?

Clark says that today most important photographic collections have probably 'received a visit from a conservator' and that there is more awareness of how photographs should be treated. Nevertheless, there is still a shortage of trained photography conservation specialists (in the UK they are paper conservationists that have specialised in photographs) and institutions that employ a photographic conservator are the exception rather than the rule. Until that situation improves the long-term well being of photography archives will depend on the occasional visit of a freelance specialist like Susie Clark.

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