Caring for Photographic Collections

Caring for Photographic Collections

Jill de Fresnes, Casting the Net: An Oral History of the Ring Net Fishing Project

On Wednesday 4th September a group of volunteers, heritage professionals and interested individuals met at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery to undertake a workshop on ‘Caring for Photographs including Digital Preservation’.  Many community groups and local archives have photographic material of all types and ages and this workshop was put together to provide some really interesting background and advice on how best to look after these collections.

Senior Paper Conservator at the National Galleries of Scotland, James Berry, gave the group an introduction to photographic types allowing us to handle photographs from the earliest Daguerreotypes through to Tin Type and Kodachrome and more recent colour prints. He spoke about different methods of both preserving and exhibiting these images. James’ passion for photographs and conservation was obvious and his advice both useful and practical. He explained how light, temperature and humidity all have a profound effect on photographic material and so trying to keep collections in as stable an environment as possible is one of the most important things for an archive to consider. Don’t keep photographs in a shoebox in the attic! He advised that if an archive or heritage centre has any money they should try and spend it on proper archive quality storage boxes.

After lunch the group met up at Modern 2 and enjoyed a ‘backstage’ tour of the Reading Room and Stores with archivist Kirstie Meehan. We saw some beautiful examples of photograph albums from artists such as Joan Eardley and some of the group felt encouraged by Kirstie’s admission that very few archives are able to keep on top of all their collections and just have to try their best to conserve and preserve as well as they can often with limited resources available. Kirstie also demonstrated how the archive itself can be used as part of an exhibitions and could provide some really interesting background material and context for particular exhibitions and collections. The cataloguing systems are also often far from perfect but she felt it was extremely important to try and catalogue a collection to ‘bring order to chaos’ – to ensure that it is searchable, useable and also helps to prevent damage to prints from people having to handle them too often to look for material.

Sean Rippington, Digital Archives officer from the University of St Andrews continued on this theme with his presentation but focusing on Digital Community Archives. This includes websites, Youtube Channel, or any Social Media Page.  After a group has chosen what it is that it wants to preserve, and who should be able to access it – these archives also have to be kept safe, managed over time and also made use of. Groups were encouraged to look at good examples such as Colourful Heritage, a digital community archive which is preserving the heritage and stories of South Asian and Muslim communities in Scotland.

This workshop was a really interesting and useful introduction to both preservation of physical photographic material – and the development and maintenance of digital community archives.  Many thanks to Audrey at the Scottish Council on Archives, and to James, Kirstie and Sean.