Home Sweet Housing: Creating a Unique Enclosure for a Historic Photograph

Younger Family, relatives of the first African American employee of the Smithsonian, Solomon Brown,

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.

Solomon G. Brown, by Unknown, 1891, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SA-754 and SIA2007-0039.

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.


Diagram of Solomon Brown photograph housing showing construction process. Image by William Bennett.



Diagram of Solomon Brown photograph housing, side view. Image by William Bennett.


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

Transferring the outline of the photograph to the top layer of the base to create a snug fit. Photo 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.

Recessing the steel shim into the reverse of the magnetic over-mat. Photo by William Bennett. 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.


Completed housing with the magnetic components clearly visible. Photo by William Bennett.


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.

Editor's note: the video hosting service Vine was discontinued in 2017. You can find an archived short clip of the housing in action by clicking on the Smithsonian Institution Archives caption (appears upon mouseover) in the video still below or by going directly to https://vine.co/v/iz6hItrgqvh.


Related Resources

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.

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