Door to store: Caring for your photographic collection
Michelle Hetherington, Kerryn Wagg, George Serras, Jason McCarthy and Lisa O'Brien, 9 May 2013
ALEXANDRA KIDD: Hello everybody and welcome to the National Museum of Australia. My name is Alexandra Kidd and I am the adult programs officer with the Museum. It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to Door to Store today. The Door to Store series, for those of you who are new, is an ongoing series that aims to look at what the Museum does behind the scenes and try to give some practical tips of what you can do at home; and, for the rest of you, welcome back.
Today we are talking about photography, which you will well know. Before we get into it, I wanted to let you all know that we are recording today and your attendance here today is considered consent to be recorded. We do these recordings so that people who couldn’t come to the Museum today or that can’t actually come to Canberra do still have access to these workshops and other seminars that we put on. I will also ask you to take this time to turn off your mobile phones or put them onto silent. If you have a camera on your phone, I would also encourage you to take some photos and think about where those photos are going to end up in time. You could also send them through to our Facebook, if you want.
Today on our panel we have Michelle Hetherington from our curatorial team and will be discussing the significance of photographs: from photography we have the Museum’s two photographers here today, Jason McCarthy and George Serras, talking to you; from conservation we have Kerryn Wagg, who will be talking a bit about how to look after these things at home; and then last but certainly not least we have Lisa O’Brien, who looks after the digitisation of our collections and will be giving you a demonstration on the importance of digitisation and looking after your photos. I will hand you over to Michelle. I hope you all enjoy the session. Thank you.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Hello everyone. How lovely to see you all here today. The most recent exhibition I have completed is the 1913 exhibition that is on display downstairs, Glorious Days: Australia 1913. It is an exhibition that has relied heavily on photography. Of course, 1913 is a time when photography was becoming increasingly democratic as a medium in Australia. The Kodak camera, as it was advertised, allowed people to click and forget. You no longer needed to worry about glass plates and you didn’t need to understand about chemistry, you could just send off your negatives and they would be developed and returned to you. Photography is being taken by a much wider part of the community, which means that the images that we had available to us were diverse and fantastic.
The ways that we used photography in [the] 1913 [exhibition] are many. And at this point I need to make the point that some things in exhibitions we consider to be objects and some things we consider to be graphics. Photographs can be both, but we used photographs as objects - that is, the object itself - within the exhibition particularly in the salon section. What you can see up here is a portrait by May and Mina Moore of Borneo Gardiner [http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/a_musical_year]. He was a visiting performer. They took photographs of many of the visiting performers in Australia, including the fantastic Ring Cycle opera performers.
Studio photography is changing in 1913. The modern ones are much more focussed on the psychology of the individual, using dramatic lighting and a minimum of props. This is called Dejection [image shown] and here we have Delilah [image shown]. We also have a number of other fine art photographers on display. There are works by people like Rudolf Buchner, who took this beautiful image of Louise Lovely, Australia’s first international movie star [http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/an_australian_style#thumbnail3], Frank Hurley, Alice Mills, Harold Cazneaux and John Kauffmann.
We also used photographs to help us in our research and to ensure accuracy in the exhibition’s look and feel. How were hats worn? What did people actually wear? We have a model of a workman. Obviously workmen’s clothes from 1913 have worn out. They have just been worn and worn and then probably torn up as rags to clean the shoes. So we had to re-create that particular outfit. What were people wearing? We looked at the photographs, and they were really helpful.
This image I am showing you is an image of a woman called Nellie Donegan [http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/sport_and_leisure?result_376675_result_page=1#thumbnail6]. You will be very familiar with her if you have seen anything about the exhibition. We used some photographs in the exhibition as graphics, so this is where we reproduce the photograph. We don’t pretend it’s a real object; we are just using it as illustrative material that helps the audience interpret the objects we put on display. In the case of Nellie, we had a set of 1913 roller skates, and Nellie is wearing 1913 roller skates [image shown]. What you probably can’t see in the photograph but you can see on the object are that the wheels are made of wood. So quite extraordinary skill was required to do anything on them, I would think.
Here are some more of the beautiful portraits [image shown]. We also have images of the Coronation suffrage march [image shown]. The objects we have in the exhibition that relate to women’s suffrage are much more easily understood in their context when you see the photographs, and the last photograph I will show you is from that particular march.
We also used photographs to document the objects in our collection. This is where George and Jason in particular are amazing, because they can take the objects from our collection, photograph them and make them look so beautiful. But they can also discover aspects of those objects that we can’t see with the naked eye and that we will miss. These beautiful photographs can then be used on the website, in advertising and in the media. We always love it when something from our collection can go in an exhibition because we know it will get the ‘George and Jason’ treatment. We used in-house photography by our own staff for the website, as I mentioned, for the advertisements, for illustrations, for the articles that I have written, that Andrew Sayers has written and other curators on the project have written. That allows us to take the exhibition to a broader audience. It also allows us to engage the media, get them interested in the exhibition, make them want to know what we’ve got to say. I did a radio interview yesterday and trying to talk about a photograph or an object on radio is a bizarre process, so normally what they ask us for is a lovely image that they can put up on the website, so that people who enjoyed the radio program can go back and look at the image.
This is an art photograph by Kauffmann [image shown]. Aren’t they beautiful? These are vaudeville dancers, and vaudeville in 1913 was just the best thing. People loved going to it. There was a lot of enjoyment of theatre, music, vaudeville, cinema.
Photography was also used to illustrate our fantastic book which has the same title as the exhibition: Glorious Days: Australia 1913, and the use of photography has made that book particularly lovely. It makes the pleasure of reading the essays even greater.
This is something about the look and feel of this photograph[image shown]; it has a wonderful sense of the past. This is one of the photographs that we used as a graphic in the book [image shown]. When it was pushed up to a really high resolution, which is what you can do with digital photography, we noticed that one of the pugilists is an Indigenous man. You wouldn’t spot it unless you had a photograph that you could really look at closely. [image shown] This is a photograph of one of the first graduands from the University of Western Australia. These are the women from the march I was telling you about [image shown]. They include the wife of the Prime Minister, the wife of the New South Wales Premier, the wife of the former Prime Minister of New Zealand - they are very powerful women - and it’s a stereoscopic photograph.
The last thing that photography allows us to do is to document the exhibition itself, the processes by which we put it together, the way it looked when it went up, the sorts of programs that we have done associated with it. So photographs allows the exhibition itself to become an historical document. Thank you very much. [applause] I am now going to hand over to George.
GEORGE SERRAS: Thank you, Michelle. Welcome everyone. The photography team consists of three staff - myself, Jason McCarthy and Katie Shanahan – and between us we service the requirements of the Museum: curatorial needs, publications, gallery documentation, collection documentation and so on. We are very fortunate because we have a very diverse job, and every moment is very stimulating for us.
This is a shot of our studio [image shown] and we use a variety of cameras. One is a large format digital capture camera triggered by a computer - in this case a Macintosh. We also have 35mm digital SLRs, many mainly Canon cameras, for public relations and small macro photography or other types of capturing. [image shown] Here is an example of Jason McCarthy who was actually photographing the Johnny Warren collection, which consisted of 1,510 images, according to Jason. We used a 35mm digital camera to capture each page of this - Johnny Warren being a very famous soccer player.
Our photograph archive is located within our general store. We use Albox in this case and other archival boxes to store our photographs, negatives and other analogue material such as photographic prints.
Just touching on what we do, we document activities. This is Open Day at the Museum in on 11 March 2001 [image shown]. Our photography has numerous usages. This was for an exhibition within the Gallery of First Australians. [images shown] These images that we are viewing at the moment are part of our Landmarks gallery which fed into digital, print and graphic panels - so multiple usages. [images shown] Once again continuing with Landmarks. You can see that there is occasionally a bit of location work involved.
A lot of the work is also digitising our collection into a format which Jason will touch upon shortly. The scale of our collection is very broad, from small love tokens [http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/highlights/convict-tokens] – and you can see these in our Australian Journeys gallery - to large objects that can be found within our 1913 exhibition as well as various materials, textiles and other items. This is a snapshot of collection material that has gone into 1913. You can actually go and see these objects later on, if you wish. This is our lovely Citroën [http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/highlights/citroen_tourer], which is located in the Hall. We are just touching on larger objects so we have to face and encounter scale issues and how we approach them. In this case we had to use available light in the car park of one of our repositories to give it a bit of an atmosphere to capture the object in the best possible way. [image shown] This is the Abbot coach which is in the 1913 exhibition, just using available light with some additional lighting to capture things.
What I want to do is touch on our National Historical Collection and the photographic material that we have within the collection. We have examples of this which we can have a look at towards the end. There is also some non-collection material over here, which the public can handle. This is material that either Kerryn or me have brought in.
The daguerreotype was the first commercial successful photographic process invented around 1837 by Louis-Jacques Daguerre, a Frenchman. It’s a direct positive made from the camera onto a copper plate - copper being quite expensive at the time and hence the unavailability to the masses when it came to photography and people who were photographed. It was usually the well to do that had the opportunity to be photographed. This is from our Springfield collection [image shown]. We have a lot of material in our collection from Springfield, which is a property just 12 kilometres south of Goulburn. That collection allowed us to use it in many ways. [image shown] It’s a mirror-like finish. It’s very fragile and the surface can be rubbed off by your finger - hence it’s usually protected in a velvet plush case.
This is an ambrotype [image shown]. Ambrotype is another material where rather than the emulsion being placed on metal it’s on glass which started to make it more affordable. It’s once-off off the camera, so one image onto a plate per capture. It’s backed by either paint, cloth or paper to give it the reflectiveness that it needed. It didn’t have quite the tonal range and was less impressive than the daguerreotype.
We have glass plates in our collection, and you can see six of them in our Australian Journeys gallery [http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/highlights/richard-daintrees-glass-plates]. This is the Richard Daintree collection. This is a wet process or collodion process. Richard Daintree was mainly in northern Queensland coating his glass plates, his negatives, and these are the positives that we have from that collection. They are very beautiful like large-format transparencies, beautiful objects. I hope you get to see them. He was obviously documenting the goldfields and other activities in Queensland. It’s a very important collection.
Here we have a tintype, which in fact is not made of tin but it’s a metal base [image shown]. It’s a direct positive onto a material and blackened by paint or lacquering and enamelling to give you the impression of a positive or, depending on the angle, it’s can also be thought as a negative. Photographers is usually worked around fairs, carnivals and other areas. This started to make photography more accessible to the public, as Michelle mentioned, at the turn of the century in the 1900s to the 1910s and 1920s. The tintypes were very popular with street photographers because they were able to produce cheap images to the public. What I would like to do is show you an example because it’s surprisingly quite small in its size, and it’s sometimes important to have a clear idea of scale. [object shown] It is like a postage stamp, like Michelle said. So scale is something to appreciate. At the end we can have a look at some of the glass plates which are much larger as well.
In the development of photography, we then moved on to the glass plate as I touched on before. The glass plate was a very stable medium. It was a flat plane. Optics didn’t perform as well so any element that assisted the focal plane to remain sharp was highly regarded, and glass was one of the common materials used at the time. We have material from the Basedow collection around 1907 to 1910 [image shown].
We also have lantern slides. A lantern slide is a positive which was then sandwiched in between another piece of glass to protect it, so this is the beginning of slide photography for projection. These plates were quite often mass produced, and slide kits were made available. The original glass plates or lantern slides originate around the 1700s, but this photographic contemporary form peaked around the late 1800s to 1920s. Even people like Val Morgan were using glass plates, 6cms x 6cms, in cinemas for projection of advertising. They certainly lived beyond the developments of other forms. Because they were relatively easy to produce, they were used by schools and universities for presentations. We are presenting a digital version of the original glass plate lantern slide presentation to animate things. Colour didn’t come in until the autochrome of 1903 and 1905 which was in fact potato starch, three colours sprinkled on a glass plate, and each potato starch colouring was photographed through a particular filter and the culmination of those three produced colour. This is an example of hand tinting [image shown]. It is a glass plate which has become a lantern slide with hand tinting to animate it. You can see the beautiful detail of these. These would have been placed in a larger projector and you can see the sequencing of the storytelling.
We have also very large films. This was a large nitrate film that it was asked for us to be photographed many years ago and it is stored in the freezer [image shown]. You can see the dimensions. It is 1.36 metres long by 3.375 metres so quite a lengthy panorama of Mount Kosciuszko by the photographer [Charles] Kerry in 1911, I believe, and we created a positive of that.
We have albumin prints. Albumin used egg as a binding agent for the gelatin. We have an example of one over here that we can have a look at afterwards. This was the beginning process of printing out negatives onto photographic paper.
We did have some support material in our collection which was nitrate-based film. This nitrate film, although it is relatively stable, can be quite volatile and can explode in non-ideal conditions and can continue to burn even under water. This material was used to support our National Historical Collection and wasn’t quite part of our collection. What we did was photograph this material to create a positive, but the original films then went to the National Film and Sound Archive chutes, which is opposite us at Mitchell, for storage and a positive was created for future usage. So hopefully we don’t need to revisit that nitrate emulsion.
We have contemporary films. This is from the Jon Lewis collection [image shown], a significant collection that consists of just over 200 portraits that he did during the 1980s including famous people such as Brett Whiteley and Ita Buttrose. This is basically the traditional bromide silver-based emulsion placed on a variety of photographic surfaces to give us our contemporary paper that has been used for the last 110 years or so.
That is a quick snapshot of the photographic process and looking in particular at our collection. There will be opportunities then for you to examine these further into the galleries, and the handout we have indicates where these items are located. I would like to hand over to Jason McCarthy now.
JASON McCARTHY: Thank you, George. Hello and welcome everyone. I will be talking on the digitisation of photographic material, which is essentially the conversion of original or analog photographic material into electronic form or a digital format through the use of a digital capture device. As George touched on, one of the roles of the photographic unit here at the Museum is to digitise a lot of this material that we have examples of in front. Throughout my talk I will describe the processes that we use in order to digitise that material.
Why do we digitise photographic material that we have in the collection? There are a number of reasons that I will quickly go through. We can increase the accessibility of that material - rather than just having a select few view the original, we can deliver it to a much broader audience through web-based programs, through publications or through advertising. We have community outreach programs as well, so a lot of this material can actually be collated and sent to remote areas of Australia.
We have a preservation issue as well. By creating a very accurate digital copy of the original, we can offset the need to retrieve that original material from the stable environment of storage, thereby risking damage or deterioration to that original. We have the ability to reproduce again very accurate reproductions of this material, if need be, or for graphic panels, as Michelle touched on, for various uses.
We have a conservation aspect where a very accurate visual copy can be produced and compared to the original incrementally to see the rate of deterioration of that material. In some rare cases, we use a digital copy to replace the original. The rate of deterioration may be so bad that the original is just going to fall apart in the foreseeable future or it might be because of the instability of the material such as cellulose nitrate films. A decision might be made to digitise it and then dispose the original or to send it off to a storage facility elsewhere.
The policy in terms of digitisation of photographic material here at the Museum is to be as faithful to the original as possible. We want to be as accurate as we can in terms of colour, tone and contrast and certainly not mislead the viewer into thinking the original is something that it is not. We don’t embellish or enhance; we don’t make any changes to that original in digital form - what you see is what you get. It’s an objective approach rather than a subjective approach.
The types of photographic materials that we are called upon to digitise can fall into two categories. We have reflected material and we have transmitted material. Reflected material is photographic material that requires light falling upon it or being reflected upon it in order to reveal the images that it holds. Prints are the main example of reflected material. Transmitted photographic material is material that requires light to be transmitted through it in order to reveal the images that it holds. A film negative is an example of transmitted material.
Digitising reflected photographic material, as I touched on before, are generally prints that come in all shapes and sizes and reflect many different photographic processes throughout time. They can come in a number of different substrates, paper being the most common, but they can also appear on glass, on sheet metal such as silver or copper and plastics such as polyester.
This is a quick snap of our reprographic setup in our studio at our Mitchell repository [image shown]. Just before I go through this, there are two avenues that we can take in terms of digitising photographic material in terms of hardware or the equipment used: one being a scanner in its various forms; and the other being a digital camera system. At the Museum we have opted for a digital camera system because we just find it far more versatile. We are able to achieve very accurate renditions of the original but it’s adaptable as well, depending on the nature of the object, and also we can travel. We can tear down the setup and take it onto a location and achieve very accurate results. It’s much gentler on the object as well. Scanning hardware can be a little bit rough with some of the more sensitive material that we have to digitise, so using a camera system is far gentler and there is much less risk of damaging that material.
I will take you through the setup here. This is a classic reprographic setup that we would use for all our reflected material. It’s not only photographic material, we also digitise artworks, handwritten documents and things of that nature. Here we have a reprographic table which is fully adjustable. It’s quite a bespoke table so it’s a very versatile piece of equipment. We have our camera system here. That’s a high-end digital SLR system full frame. We use prime lenses because of their high standard of optical quality. We have that mounted above and parallel to the surface here. Again, that is adjustable so it can go up and down and out and in, depending on the nature of the material being digitised. We have a symmetrical lighting system supplied here by studio flash units and they are driven by studio packs - very powerful lights. They allow us an incredible range of very fine adjustment so we can peg exposures to very fine levels. Attached to those we have light diffusers, soft boxes here, which diffuse the light and give us a very even spread of light on the surface. For doing any reprography, any digitisation of flat media, it’s essential that we have even illumination across that area. We choose flash. Even though we can use constant light source for this sort of reprography, we choose flash because again it’s far more versatile and very adaptable. We can move the lights in and out depending on the spread of the light that we need and it’s actually gentler on the objects as well. The flash is so brief that there is no risk of any light fading occurring on the objects themselves.
The system is run by a laptop computer so we have linked that up with a cable to the camera. We fire the camera remotely from the laptop. At the heart of the laptop we run specialised raw capture and processing software called Capture 1. This whole system is a colour-managed work flow which means that, because the level of accuracy we must get, colour accuracy is paramount. We have to capture that colour exactly and we do so by using custom colour profiles of the camera. The camera has a digital sensor and it has its own way of understanding colour and recording colour. They are generally very good but, if you compare one camera to the next, there are slight variances. When we are called upon to do this colour critical work, those variances are unacceptable.
What you use is a GretagMacBeth colour checker here [image shown] and we have an example down there, which is 140 colour swatches taken from a known colour space. This is an industry standard chart. For each one of those colours we have known coordinates, we have mathematical RGB values so that we are able to plot those colours exactly. We have the camera and take a photograph of that chart. With profiling software we see how the camera understands those colours and we see those variances from the known values that we know to the way that the camera is recording those. That creates a series of instructions which gets locked into what we call a custom camera profile. We now know that, when we take a photograph with that particular camera, if we apply that profile, those colours will lock straight in.
Here we have a screen grab of the software that we run and we have a period photograph that we have shot there [image shown]. We would have established our exposure values off the colour chart, the white, black and grey values. Once we have our exposure locked in, we apply the colour profile from that camera, and the colour just snaps straight in. In photographic terms it’s very exciting to see. Here is our finished product [image shown]. That is exported as a TIF, a very stable digital format. We also append metadata, information into the file itself, things about the object and some copyright information concerning the National Museum. You notice that this particular photograph has been dry mounted to a piece of card, and we have actually photographed the entire card. That is because we are treating this photograph as an object rather than just the image that the photograph holds. That means recording everything about it, and in this case the dry mounted card it is placed upon.
Here is a photograph of Dr Bell of Campbelltown [image shown]. How do we know it’s Dr Bell? Well, it’s written on the back. But this is an example of how thoroughly we document this image. A photograph is more than just the image itself; it’s the sum total of all its parts. So if there is information on the back that is pertinent to this photograph as well and also the photographic process of the time and technology of the time - these are all clues that give us an understanding or the story about the photograph. We try to include as much as we can and try to be as accurate as we can with this digitisation. Here is another example [image shown]: this time we have another hand annotation on the back and a date.
Moving on to transmitted photographic material, as I said before, this is material that requires light passing through it in order to reveal its imagery. This could be black and white negatives, glass plate negatives, lantern slides or colour transparencies. We use a very similar process for transmitted digital capture as we do with reflected except it is upside down. Here we have our versatile reprographic table [image shown], but this time we have a flash unit mounted in the centre of that table that fires the light through it. We have a camera mounted above. We mask off the negative that we are going to photograph. We have that negative placed emulsion side up. It is much the same as you would in a darkroom. You always print emulsion to emulsion. We virtually just sort of turn that upside down. We do that because it’s the most detailed view we are going to have of that detail. Rather than trying to photograph through the clear carrier or the carrier base, we photograph right to the emulsion itself.
The whole system is driven by the laptop computer using the same software, but we have to make some variances in terms of how we capture this. Because of the nature of this transmitted material such as negatives, if we have a particular exposure for the light source on a well-exposed and well-developed negative, if we then try to use that same light source on a very dense negative it may not yield any results whatsoever. Or if we try to use that same light output on a very thin negative, we might just blow all the detail out. So we have to have a bit of a floating benchmark, depending on the object itself, rather than doing a batch process.
Again here is a screen shot [image shown]. We have got a Stouffer colour step in there which we use to neutralise and we also can peg our white and black points with that. That gives us a bit of a starting point in which to digitise this material. When we output it, here it is here [image shown]. We then have to laterally reverse that. Because we shot it with the emulsion side up, we then have to laterally reverse it as though we are looking through the clear base.
From this point on we generally bring the image up on a colour calibrated monitor. We have the negative or the transmitted material on a light box that is the same lux level as the monitor that is outputting. We then have to do fine adjustments. Unfortunately we have to treat these individually because there are inherent characteristics within that transmitted material we have to fine tune, the relationships of the tones, the characteristic curve, the contrast and sometimes the colour as well. And from that we have our finished digitised transmitted material.
But we have to take an extra step. We have to understand that we are treating this as an object in its own right so we are doing an accurate a reproduction as we can. But we always have to remember that this was intended as an intermediate step in the photographic process. It was always intended to be taken a step further to create a positive image that is easily interpreted. This is where a little bit of subjectivity comes into it. We are actually creating that positive from it. If we did a straight flip, the tones wouldn’t be quite right so we need to invest a little bit of aesthetic into that. It’s almost like creating a working print in a dark room. Here we have an example of a particularly well-exposed and well-developed negative [image shown] and here is the positive that we have created [image shown]. The amount of detail that we can extract from these is extraordinary, especially with the medium in the large format negative or transmitted material that we have.
Here is another example - again this is absolutely beautiful to see in true life [image shown]. The amount of detail is so rich that it’s almost like an etching. Here is an example of a particularly dense negative. It’s been overexposed and it’s probably badly developed as well because there is some fogging on the film base. But when we do the positive, we try to bring that to a level that is easy to interpret, we don’t try to correct any of these flaws; you can see that we have lost detail here but we bring it to a level in which we can able to extract the information. We don’t go to any extremes; we don’t get too arty with it; again, it’s just a working print that we are creating.
These are examples of glass slides [image shown]. This is a particularly thin one. Some damage has occurred here somewhere along its lifetime. It could be fixed post-capture with software, but we don’t touch it. This is how the original looks, and this is how we depict it. Here is another lantern slide that has had physical damage to the glass carriers [image shown]. Again, this could be corrected post-capture but this is how we wish to depict this original material.
That has been a very quick overview of the digitisation process that we carry out at the Museum’s photographic unit. In all honesty, we could talk about this for three hours and still have more to talk about. It’s a quick snapshot of how we go about digitising this material. It’s just one of the steps in the fabric that all of our various units give to looking after and providing access to this material to the general public.
I would like to introduce Kerryn who will be talking about the conservation approach to a lot of this material. Thank you very much.
KERRYN WAGG: Thank you, Jason, and hello everyone. My name is Kerryn Wagg and I work in the conservation department here at the National Museum of Australia. As a conservator I provide care that assists in the preservation of the collection. As you can see by listening to our previous speakers, photographs form a really important part of our collection here at the Museum. But they are also an important part of many of your collections at home.
A lot of the care that we provide for the collection here are things that you can duplicate with your own collections. It’s important to understand that the deterioration and damage that occurs to photographs happens because of internal and external factors. The internal or inherent factors relate to the makeup and consequent stability of the photographs, and these can be issues that are difficult to deal with. The external factors are the conditions that our photos are subjected to, and we can control those sorts of things. The main things to think about are the environmental conditions our photos are subjected to, our handling practices and the types of physical storage that we use.
First when we are talking about handling, you can see that I am wearing plastic gloves and wearing gloves is good practice with photographs. If you go for plastic gloves, close-fitting, powder-free surgical gloves are a good option because you still have a bit of sensitivity of touch. You can go for cotton gloves, although sometimes cotton gloves can be slippery and they can catch on any damaged areas on photos. When you are making a decision, take those sorts of things into account. Bare hands can be okay so long as they are clean, but never touch the emulsion on a photograph with your bare fingers because the oils in your fingertips can cause your fingerprints to become etched into the surface.
Other aspects of good handling include preparing and planning for what you are going to do, making sure you have time and space to carry out what you are going to do. Provide support for objects, whether that’s support for a single photo as you are moving it where you might like to support it in a tray or on a board when you are moving it from one spot to another. That will limit the amount of physical handling. Using a book pillow is also a good way to handle a photo album, particularly older photo albums that may be structurally delicate so that you are providing proper support for that spine. The type of pillows that you can use at home are your standard pillows but make sure they are not overstuffed so that you can move the stuffing in them. You could also put two small cushions inside a pillowcase and use it that way, because that way you get an indentation in the centre.
Looking at this photograph brings me to the idea of the types of physical enclosures you have for objects. The types of products you want to use will generally be things that are of archival quality and ideally they will have passed the PAT test, which is the photographic activity test, which is conducted by the Image Permanence Institute and these are products that have been tested for their reactivity with photographs. In older albums like this, you wouldn’t think about removing them [the photographs], even if the materials used are not of a high quality. You might use other options - interleaving is a good one. You want to make sure that you are not going to put excess stress on the album by adding to its bulk with extra pages.
Here I have some other options for putting together your own albums: Avoid sticking your pictures down onto your pages. One thing you can do is use photographic corners. You can purchase photographic corners but again look for archival quality materials, or you can make your own. You can make them from plastics like polyester film or mylar, as it’s often called, with double-sided tape just so long as you make sure that the tape is not going to come into contact with the photo and sticking those down. That’s a good way to mount your photos. If you use separate sheets and put them in a ring binder, then you can add pages as necessary.
You can also plastic sleeves to keep your photos in. There are lot of products available and you actually do searches for conservation suppliers on the Internet. The types of plastics you can want to look for are polyesters and polypropylene plastics.
Here we have one of the types of albums that we use at the Museum. It’s good because it has extra buffering with a case, and you can again add pages as required internally. You don’t necessarily have to put your photos into albums; you can keep them in boxes. Again, look for archival quality materials.
It’s good practice to actually encase your photographs in separate enclosures. Here I have an example of a four-flap envelope. These come in a number of different size formats. You can actually get them for things like glass plate negatives. They are a great way to store that type of material, because you can open them out and then not have to pull your object in and out and possibly cause damage to it that way. It’s great to actually label your enclosure rather than your photograph. If you do feel that you would like to put some information onto the photograph itself, never use biro because you will make an indentation in the image, label in a soft graphite pencil along a back edge of the picture.
Another thing to consider is when you are displaying your photographs. Here I have some archival quality cotton rag mount board, a support backing board and a window mat. Again photo corners are a good way to mount your photos into these sorts of enclosures. If you use commercial framers, just ask them if they are familiar with conservation practices, and that’s a good way to determine which ones to go with.
The other important factors are the environmental factors. This is something to consider when you are displaying your pictures because the types of environmental factors that contribute to the deterioration of photographs are things like light, relative humidity and temperature, and biological pests. If you are going to display your pictures, it’s often good to use copies or at least put them in places in your house where you don’t have a lot of light shining directly on them.
What you really want to try to achieve with your environmental conditions are stability. This is particularly important with your relative humidity and temperature. Fluctuations in relative humidity will cause the materials in many photographs to swell and contract, which will cause damage. As with many environmental factors they are interrelated - temperature and relative humidity have a direct bearing on one another, so changes in temperature will cause changes in relative humidity.
When you are thinking about where to put your storage in the house, think about areas that are in the centre of your house as these will be more stable. Areas to avoid include roof cavities, under the floor and against external walls. You do provide extra buffering for your materials by putting them in boxes and enclosures. I have some specific information about the levels of relative humidity to go for. So if anyone wants those for particular types of photographic formats, you can come and talk to me about those after the presentation.
A few images have been shown as I have been going through, and I know I missed the one about the bugs. When you do see things like bugs and mould in areas where you are storing your photographs, that is usually letting you know there are things that are wrong with your environmental conditions. For instance, mould growth generally means you have a relative humidity of above about 60 per cent. So look for the cause, and that can help you to solve those sorts of problems.
This is an example of a photo that doesn’t have one of our window mats. When the picture doesn’t have a buffer between it and the glazing, when relative humidity is high, that emulsion layer can become tacky and can actually stick to the glazing and become very difficult to remove.
If you do have problems that have occurred because of these sorts of issues, it’s a really good idea to contact a conservator. Damage is often difficult to treat so it is always good to find someone who is familiar with the materials. To find conservators in your area, you can visit the AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials) website [http://www.aiccm.org.au/]. On it there is a link to finding a conservator in private practice in your area.
My last image shows some of the other damage and a few things to avoid, which include using sticky tape to mend your photographs [image shown]. You can see there is some damage caused by sticky tape on this image. The adhesives in sticky tape change over time. From being sticky and clear they migrate into your papers and begin to change colours into these horrible dark brown stains. So don’t use sticky tape. Other things you should avoid too include PVC plastic enclosures. You can often smell PVC. You want to avoid metal paper clips to keep groups of photos together, because those will cause physical damage and if the clips rust you will get staining and things like that as well. They are a few things to think about, but I will be here if you have any specific questions. Now I would like to hand over to Lisa.
LISA O’BRIEN: Hi, I work in registration but I work in a slightly different area. I work managing two databases, one is a digital asset management system (DAMS) that we are soon to finish putting in that will manage all of our media assets; and then we also have a collections information database which is KE EMu. Basically we make records in EMu to record our objects.
When thinking about the work in museums, your first thoughts are probably based around visiting a museum I would imagine - me too – to see exhibitions, interesting displays and stories. The exhibitions that stick in my mind are usually those that I emotionally connect to or exhibits and displays that are beautiful. Displays that are beautiful require little interpretation, such as the gorgeous lightbox of Kimberley points in the Gallery of First Australians [http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/first_australians/upper_gallery_stories_slideshow?result_6095_result_page=3#thumbnail14]. This case illustrates how mass display can work, though not all objects lend themselves to this type of display. Mostly museums just show one or two objects to represent a type of object. It doesn’t mean we don’t have other objects that are very similar. Or we display a few objects that are pertinent to a story or their previous owner. For instance, Burke and Wills’ water bottle is well placed to tell the story of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition.
In modern museums, aesthetics, good taste and a good story, funnily enough, seem to be barriers to display of mass objects - I do say this with tongue in cheek. The reality is, however, that only five per cent of our collection is on display at any one time. I did a quick calculation based on an average display time of seven years - this is a guesstimate only - and based on this only 70 per cent of our collection will be displayed each 100 years. This figure does not reflect objects on display longer than seven years where we may display signature or popular objects such as Phar Lap’s heart [http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/highlights/phar-laps-heart] more than once, or that some objects will never be appropriate for display either because they are not curatorially interesting or because they are not conservation-wise fit for display. Don’t misunderstand me: Nothing beats the authentic experience of standing in front of a famous or beautiful object on display. The work related to exhibiting is essential to museums and exciting, but it is also costly both in monetary terms and, as Jason touched on, in terms of the object itself. The figures that I just given you are a good argument for more exhibition space and for open storage but, increasingly, museums, galleries and libraries are also using the virtual world as a means to allow access to our collections.
I love collection search components of museum websites. For me - many of you might have been luckier - visiting the British Museum or the V&A in London is still but a dream, but I can view their collections on time any time I like. Of course, where would we be without the NLA’s historic newspapers online? [link] Everyone caught up with those? In the library probably is the answer to my question. But online they are available to you 24/7 any time you like.
As I am here to talk about collections information systems and digital asset management systems - I see you yawning, I understand - you might be thinking, ‘Yes she’s an IT type person or a geek or a nerd.’ But like many of you I can’t be bothered programming the television or the DVD recorder, and funnily enough when practising this my husband was really pleased to hear that because it means he still has a job. Equally, the databases that I support are really not the interesting part of my work, surprisingly. What does inspire me is the important work that our databases support, the recording of objects, and that is definitely a partnership between the work of registration and the work of curatorial. The information that they capture is vital.
Information once held in digital form can be used in infinite ways with a little post-production. Once a quality record and images have been taken of an object, they can literally be posted with a click of a button. In the public domain, connections can be made between objects in dispersed collections. As little a decade ago this would not have been possible as museum catalogues were recorded on handwritten cards in wooden drawers.
For me, collection search goes to the heart of what museums are founded on: access of knowledge devoid of bias for gender, social standing and the rest. In truth, our collections belong to all of you and everybody else. One of the great parts of my job is that I get to learn about collections through the collections records and the images held in the two databases. You might not think that is very lucky, but I like it. This afternoon I had hoped to show you two objects that are favourites of mine - not that I have ever stood in front of them. These objects have never been on display except through a collection search. It would have been a sneak peek.
Here on the front table is the first object that I wanted to show you and it’s just in the middle here [http://www.nma.gov.au/collections-search/display?irn=119820]. You can come up and have a good look at it later. According to the record in eMU it is a handwritten and hand illustrated nature study book compiled by Mary Kendall. Mary was born in 1891 in the small Victorian town of Brim and trained as a teacher. As a qualified teacher, Mary was posted to Natimuk in the Woomera. The record says that the book was likely to have been compiled around 1911 to 1919 when Mary was in her 20s. She used it to teach her students subjects such as botany. While we have released the record to the object collection search, the content of the sketchbook, as you can see by the nice image that we have of it, has yet to be digitised. We hope though that this work will be completed by the end of the year. This is a really good example of material that really lends itself to digitisation, because essentially when we display something like this in the galleries what we tend to do is open it to a page, because it is a fragile item, and that page will be displayed for a number of months and then we will flip it to another page. But when we digitise something it means that we can take an image of every single page - and later this year we will do that – and then post it up online so you can effectively read the book, which for me is a really exciting prospect. When I look at that item, all I want to do is flick through it, but of course I am not going to because it is just not what you do with a museum object.
The second object that I had hoped to bring you was too fragile for display today, which illustrates my point in a way. I would have loved to have seen this. I am dying to see it right in front of me but I haven’t. [http://www.nma.gov.au/collections-search/display?irn=107274] It is, according to its title, a needlework sampler on woollen evenweave fabric featuring boats and the text ‘Botany Bay’. It was made by Margaret Begbie, a 10-year-old girl from Scotland. It has been estimated to have been made between 1790 and 1840. It depicts an image of Botany Bay, New South Wales, in the early years of settlement. The word ‘Botany Bay’ appears above two sailing boats flying the English naval flag alongside two men in a rowboat, and on the wharf three figures are standing in archways.
Although you cannot view this within the Museum walls, it has been included in collection search for a number of years, and in fact we also have an interactive with zoomify for this one [http://www.nma.gov.au/av/zoomify/european_voyages/empire/botany-bay-sampler.html]. I like to imagine how delighted young Margaret might have been about her work being shown around the world way beyond her imagination, I would imagine. I know my kids love to show off. The photography team have photographed this object, so later this year when we update collection search we will make more images available that are stored currently in our new DAMS.
The Museum’s DAMS contains more than 60,000 media assets. These were previously stored, as you can see here [image shown], so this is where George and Jason saved their work to, so to speak, on the Museum network drives which could only be accessed by our photography and copyright teams. You can imagine that managing these images so that the correct photograph can be found has in the past been a bit tricky. Images under our network were stored under job numbers and a small amount of metadata has been, as Jason touched on, placed into the metadata so that we can relate this image to its object. What you can see there in the metadata is the IR number for this object under ‘title’ [image shown]. Just keep this thought in your head because this is the way you too can add information to your digital images.
In the case of the NMA, our DAMS will help us to better manage our media assets such as images and ensure that they are backed up, while also giving broader access to Museum staff and soon to the public via collection search.
How do you manage your images at home? I can see you all looking a bit shocked. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I would suggest to you this is only the case if you know who or what the picture is of, perhaps also where it was taken and maybe even why.
[Image shown] What you are looking at here is our new DAMS, and Emma searching for those images we just saw on that filing system.
Do your pictures have a few words with them? We did suggest writing on the back. It’s not that you can’t do that with digital files.
Anecdotally we know that, when faced with the prospect of the house burning down, people tend to grab their family first and then the photograph album. What would you take? Not just the family photograph album, I hope. As the Museum documents collections through images, we also document our family’s lives and in many cases we do this prolifically. Faced with the reality of a fire in my house - yes, I would take my family first and photos, but I can’t see me running very fast out of the house with this. So if you think that I am converted, there is still a bit of a way to go for me. The other thing about this and why you should get things in digital form is that I would imagine that most of these folders are not complete because I have taken stuff out of them and always thinking I could always get another one reprinted - maybe not today. Digital form in this day and age is probably a good way to store things.
I had hoped to bring with me some favourite photos taken of my grandparents in 1936. Here is the scanned version. They are the only historic photos that I have ever had scanned and they are of high resolution. I have to say they do lack the charm of the originals, which I would have brought if I could have found them. Looking at these and other examples of family photos which I could find - there is a couple of them here on this front table - this is my grandmother, they could be anyone without a few words around them. It could be Great-Aunt Mavis’s brother or sister or whoever you like so words are important.
What I know about these ones are that they are my grandparents before they were married in 1936. They are looking pretty relaxed and full of hope. This photographic session would have been an event for them. They likely rode a horse and sulky from Dalton to Gunning to have these taken. I additionally know quite a bit about old Czech, the itinerant photographer behind the camera. Old Czech used to put on limelight shows to attract customers. According to one newspaper article, he once set fire to the hall in Narrabri doing this. I am not sure when he became a photographer in Australia, but he stowed away on a ship from Czechoslovakia when he was 16 and unfortunately died in Gunning of botulism shortly after these photos were taken. I love stories like this and you might think about what you know about your photos, and I pay attention. But there is no guarantee that my children will be interested, perhaps my grandchildren will be when I am not around. Without the story these images could be anyone.
I can only encourage you to add as much metadata or information to your photos as you can when you can. The image viewer that we showed you before, so once you have digitised something that little screen down below - you just pull up your page when you are in Windows 7 and you have that - is a good place to start because you simply click into those fields and type. That adds a bit of data to your images that will stay with them. Adding metadata will also help you find your images. Another way to document your images is to ensure that each file has a descriptive title such as ‘Sally Blue’s birthday 2013’ just as an example.
My next piece of advice is that you must back up your digital files. How many people keep their photos either on the thing in your camera or on one computer? It’s really a bad idea. I would say what you need is an external hard drive like this. They are easy to buy anywhere you like and are infinitely more portable. Everything in that box could be stored within one of these [external hard drives]. They are a really good investment.
In addition, you could consider some of the variety of cloud options that are available for storing your images. Does everyone know what a cloud option is? A cloud option might be free or you might pay a little bit of money – they are things like iCloud which is an Apple one or Google images has Picasa. The facilities of these cloud options are that you store your images on their storage facility. They can either be free or there can a small charge. So in the case of a fire you can just run out of the door. I am not sure about the family.
Features that I would consider important when considering cloud options is the ability to store your images at their full resolution and offers many opportunities to catalogue or arrange the images and then to share them with your family and friends, which avoids the photograph album. Many also offer opportunities to feed images directly to Facebook or other social media, if that is what you are into. I hope you enjoyed it. [applause]
ALEXANDRA KIDD: Please join me in thanking the panel today. Unfortunately, I do have to apologise as we are running late we won’t have time for questions. If you do have one that you are dying to know, come and see the panel down the front afterwards. Thank you all for coming.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
Date published: 12 July 2013