The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Panoramic Panic! A Sticky Situation, Part 2
This piece is part two in a series of posts about Smithsonian Institution Archives’ (SIA) paper conservator and interns working on stabilizing a 1921 panoramic photo of air mail pilots and crews that is being moved to the National Air and Space Museum’s (NASM) Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Also see part 1 and a related post on NASM's blog. Here’s a quick message to all readers: save your neat photos, and try to treat them well. Our recent efforts to rehouse one of the National Air and Space Museum Archives’ clearly beloved, but slightly worse-for-wear panoramic photos had a fun, buried-treasure aspect. Nevertheless, it would be far better for you to deny future interns the thrill of discovering hidden information below the visible edge of tape seals, after they’ve painstakingly inched along so that no wrong pull can forever erase someone’s careful annotations. We’ve all spent time flipping through old albums, and this panorama had a similar feel, although the precise names of subjects remained a mystery. And rather than being re-stowed in a family attic, this piece had to be treated on-site in a converted hangar in preparation for an impending move from the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Archives to NASM’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center facility, located near Dulles Airport. Fortunately, we were able to recover valuable annotations from this 1921 panorama (Accession 2008-0006, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution). While it was tempting just to rip the tape and vinyl away, Nora (SIA’s Paper Conservator) and Jordan (NASM’s Archivist/collections manager) discussed each step well ahead of time. The annotations were dangerously close and vulnerable to the sticky adhesives, while the backing was curled and thoroughly dusty. This all made for risky and careful handling while exposing the print surface. The object itself was afflicted with many of the issues we’ve come to deal with daily as photograph preservation interns. If there’s one concept that has been driven home for us both, it’s the threat posed by pressure sensitive adhesives (a generic term used by conservators to describe self-adhesive, sticky-backed plastic or paper tapes, sticky notes, labels, or in this case, contact paper) on photographs and negatives. As budding conservators, our priority was preventing further damage. Although the innovative housing kept the image relatively safe and clean for many years, the photograph needed more appropriate materials for storage, travel, and to be safely digitized so that the public and researchers might have access. A painstakingly cautious process of trimming away the tapes saved the story of these pioneering air mail pilots. Almost immediately after removing the frame, the panorama seemed to be in much more stable condition. The rigid curve, as it turns out, was mostly due to the housing and the photograph could now rest (mostly) flat. We also discovered a number of pencil annotations in the margins. The faces were given names, and a sad note on the back even recorded the story of one pilot who died on the way home to his fiancée. Whoever had this photograph before us took the time to describe everyone pictured as well as the adventure that followed the captured scene. When studying the photograph, we realized that some people appeared more than once in the shot! (Take a closer look at “Ore” and “Ore again” in the composite detail)! This was an exciting find since it revealed something about the vintage photographic technology used to take the panorama. Cirkut cameras, like the one probably used here, worked by utilizing a motor to move the camera and pan across a scene while capturing a series of photographs. We couldn’t help but laugh when we imagined good ol’ Ore running from one crew to the next just in time to make the shot. As it turns out, it was even more satisfying to relive their adventures than it was to take off the offending adhesives from this great photograph.
Shereen Choudhury is the Conservation Intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.