The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Conservation
When the Archives received a photograph of the Youngers, relatives of the first African American employee of the Smithsonian, Solomon Brown, time had taken its toll on the image. The early gelatin print is mounted on a friable board reminiscent of the material used by the Government Printing Office to create covers for its publications—a mid-gray paper sandwiched around an acidic core that has turned a straw color with acid deterioration. The brittle nature of the photograph and its support has allowed the image to crack completely in half, with small pieces flaking away from the breakage point. Handwritten notes on the back in permanent marker are mostly legible despite losses of the acidic backing. There is also damage evident on the lower portion of the photograph, possibly from another document becoming stuck to it in the presence of water, a phenomenon known as blocking. The top and bottom edges of the photograph and support are also curling upward as differences in expansion and contraction of the two materials have become evident. While we don’t know when exactly this photograph was taken, based on the style of clothing it can be tentatively dated to the early years of the twentieth century.
A fragile item such as this requires special care and handling to ensure that it endures as a part of our collections. In order to protect it both while it is in collections storage and being used by researchers, a custom housing was designed and created. The solution had to meet a few specific criteria: it needed to provide adequate support to the broken photograph; it needed to facilitate easy removal of the image from its housing without excessive abrasion to the fragile edges; and it needed to restrain the curling edges of the support.
The end result is a housing composed of three elements—a base in which the photograph sits, a magnetic over-mat that gently restrains the curling edges of the image, and a protective cover mat. The base is also composed of three layers, divided into two pieces that fit together like puzzle pieces with tongue-and-groove joints. This allows the photograph to be securely held in the housing or easily removed without abrading the edges, by sliding the pieces together or apart. The overall size of the housing was chosen to fit snugly inside one of our standard-size flat archival storage boxes for extra protection and safe handling.
Brief sidebar: A complex housing like this may seem difficult to justify for the average photograph in a collection. While this image is not average, in reality creating this housing was straightforward and relatively quick to execute. Most of the time and effort was spent prototyping different elements and testing components, particularly the strength of the magnetic attraction in the over-mat. Constructing another housing from this model would take much less time and could be completed in a regular work day.
Assembling the housing
The three layers of the base are made from E-flute corrugated board. The bottom layer is cut in two pieces so that approximately one-third of the board is above the cut and two-thirds are below, with the flutes of the corrugated board running horizontally. The middle layer is composed of six vertically-cut strips, the flutes running vertically. Each strip is cut in two to create the tongue-and-groove joints described above, alternating approximately one inch above or below the cut in the bottom layer. To facilitate easy joining of the two pieces, the teeth of each joint are slightly tapered. The top layer is cut in two, mirroring the bottom; the photograph sits in this layer, atop the other two, in a sort of tray. To accommodate the image, the mounted photograph was placed on a light table and the shape traced onto Mylar, then transferred to the top layer and cut out. All three layers are laminated together with ¾-inch double-sided adhesive tape. A miniature facsimile of the reverse of the photograph mount is included in the lower right corner of the base, to provide access to the information without necessitating the removal of the photo.
The next piece, the magnetic over-mat, is fashioned simply by cutting a window with a mat cutter from archival matboard of the same dimensions as the base. Rare-earth neodymium magnets are sunk into the top layer of the base, four each along the top and bottom edges of the photograph tray, and adhered with Jade R PVA, an acrylic adhesive. Space was created for the magnets using a Japanese screw punch. The magnets are set back from the edge to avoid contact with the photograph, and further isolated and secured with strips of gummed paper tape atop the magnets. Corresponding steel shim strips are recessed along the edges of the window on the reverse of the over-mat and adhered with the same acrylic adhesive. The mat is attached to the base with a V-shaped hinge made from gummed linen tape at the top edge.
Finally, a protective cover mat was created from blue corrugated board cut to the same dimensions as the other two components. This was attached with the same gummed linen tape used with the magnetic over-mat, with a difference: instead of a V-shaped hinge, the tape was applied to the exterior of the housing from the bottom of the base and wrapping around to the top of the cover mat. This left the edges free, allowing the cover mat to fold completely flat behind the base for display or consultation.
With the housing complete, the photograph is securely held and adequately protected. The blue cover mat prevents damage to the surface of the image; the magnetic over-mat gently restrains the curling edges of the image so that further distortion is discouraged; and the base provides stable support, even when sliding the pieces apart to remove the image when necessary. This important addition to the history of one of the Smithsonian’s earliest employees will be safely available for future researchers.
Solomon Brown: First African American Employee at the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Preserve It While You Use It: Collections Care in Action, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Mounting Photographs with Earth Magnets, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
It's October and another fiscal year has ended here in the federal government. For collecting units across the Smithsonian, it's time to begin calculating statistics.
In fiscal year (FY) 2015, the Smithsonian Archives added 352 new accessions to our archival collections, equaling approximately 901.68 cubic feet of physical materials and 915.4 GB of born-digital materials, like word-processing documents, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, pdfs, CAD drawings, email, websites, and digital photographs, video, and audio (I say "approximately" because we are still tying up loose ends).
So, what do these numbers tell us? It turns out, when looking at the numbers from the last couple of years, there is no such thing as a typical year. From year to year, our numbers may vary, up or down, by as much as 300 accessions, 1,000 cubic feet, or 1,700 GB. This is due to any number of factors previously discussed in "How the Archives Gets its Records (or, Golden Lion Tamarins Galore)", such as retirements, office moves, and renovations to storage spaces. To examine trends, it's helpful to look at blocks of time.
Between FY 2011 and FY 2015, the Archives added 1,918 accessions to its collections, including 5,445.21 cubic feet of physical materials and 5,157.4 GB of born-digital materials. Of these accessions, 12 percent contained a mix of physical and born-digital materials and 25 percent consisted solely of born-digital materials.
Between FY 2006 and FY 2010, the Archives added 1,223 accessions to its collections, including 4,101.15 cubic feet of physical materials, and 1980.2 GB of born-digital materials. Of these accessions, 12 percent contained a mix of physical and born-digital materials, and 4 percent consisted solely of born-digital materials.
Clearly, both the Archives and the offices throughout the Smithsonian have begun placing a greater emphasis on the long-term business and research value of electronic files. Much larger quantities of born-digital material are being transferred to or captured by the Archives. This is also likely a reflection on a greater reliance on servers, hard drives, and removable media to maintain files (as opposed to filing cabinets) over the last 5-15 years, the period during which most of the materials that we are currently receiving were created.
These numbers also show a significant increase in the amount of physical material (aka "paper files") transferred to the Archives over the last 5 years. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is not uncommon for an office or individual to transfer several decades of files to the Archives at one time. The older the files, the more likely it is that they were printed and filed, or created on a typewriter or by hand. It remains to be seen whether those offices will begin filling the recently-emptied file cabinets with new paper files, or will begin maintaining their new files electronically.
Paper vs. Electronic: The Not-So-Final Battle, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Yes, We're Still Talking about Email, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
How the Archives Gets its Records (or, Golden Lion Tamarins Galore), The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In celebration of Archives Month, join us Thursday, October 22nd
27th, 11am to 3pm ET, where archivists and a conservator specializing in documents, books, audio/visual material, photos, and digital records (or electronic records) will be on the Smithsonian's Facebook page to answer questions about your own archival collections. Questions from our readers in the past have ranged from storing letter and diaries, to digitizing cassette tapes, to organizing digital photo archives.
Here are the folks who will be on-hand to answer your questions:
Nora Lockshin is Senior Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and conserves physical objects and consults on preservation goals with archivists, collection managers, and curators at the Archives and throughout the larger Smithsonian archival and museum community. She leads the Smithsonian Institution Archives Collections Care team, and the Smithsonian Center for Archives Conservation, a service, research, and teaching treatment laboratory for archival collections.
Eden Orelove is a Photograph Archivist at the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives. She holds an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in art history, with a specialization in the history of photography, from the George Washington University. Her work includes processing and inventorying photos and assisting with reference.
Michael Pahn is Head Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center located in the museum’s Cultural Resources Center. Michael began at NMAI in 2003 as its Media Archivist, and has overseen preservation projects funded by the National Film Preservation Foundation, Save America’s Treasures, and the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund. His prior experiences include Save Our Sounds Project Librarian at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Librarian at The Nature Conservancy. Michael is a member of the Society of American Archivists’ Native American Archives Roundtable Steering Committee. He has a BA in Anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh and an MLS from the University of Maryland
Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, Electronic Records Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives since 2005, specializes in preserving born-digital materials that include images, audio, video, websites, and email from across the Smithsonian. Her work involves using tools and creating methods that help digital objects remain accessible in the future.
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