Walking on Broken Glass

A Broken Glass Plate Negative, Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

We are in the throes of summer here in Washington DC, and that means three things:  heat, more heat, and interns. Interns not only allow us to share expertise and experience with newcomers to the field, but also allow us to address projects that we may not have the time to see to ourselves. One project I have had a few of our interns working on this summer is the inventorying and stabilization of broken glass plate negatives.

For a brief description of glass plate negatives, check out Merry Foresta’s post “There will always be a photography”. A large portion of the collection I work with consists of glass plate negatives, and unfortunately, a number of those are broken.

Another broken glass plate negative from the collections, Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archiv

With the aid of two fantastic interns, Rachel Midura and Shereen Choudhury, I now have a comprehensive inventory of all the broken glass, detailing any information that was written on their housing, as well as the level of distress on the glass. Inventorying is about as exciting as it sounds (not very), but the second part of the project is to stabilize the plates, which also probably does not sound very interesting, but I assure you is barrels of fun.

Marguerite Roby working on a glass plate negative, Courtesy of Susannah Wells.

The first step in this process is to put the plates back together. This can be as simple as refitting two pieces of a clean break back together, or may involve a more elaborate reassembly of dozens of shards of shattered glass. Like putting together puzzles? Well, I have upwards of eight hundred of them to solve. I like to think of it as extreme puzzle making because of the element of danger involved in working with a medium with sharp edges. I would also like to note that safety procedures are strictly adhered to and that every precaution is taken to ensure that no injuries occur.

After the plates are reassembled, they are scanned so that we have a visual record of what is on these plates. What we have discovered is a diverse cross section of the Smithsonian Institution’s history, including manuscripts, plant and animal specimens, exhibits, people of note, and anthropological studies. What is interesting to me, as an archivist, is that the glass plates that were once used as a method of documenting artifacts have become artifacts themselves.

A rehoused glass plate negative, Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Now, onto the actual stabilization bit. After the glass is scanned, the pieces are placed in sink mats (strips of board adhered to the edges of a backboard to make a recess, or sink, for the object to be placed). Cardboard “bumpers” are placed between the pieces of glass so the edges don’t touch. This process keeps the glass from moving and greatly reduces the chance of further breakage. The result of this looks kind of like a deconstructed puzzle, and to me has an artistic element about it, an artifact of an artifact of an artifact if you will.

The work completed by our interns this summer has revealed many riches in this collection, and I look forward to approaching the next piece to the greater puzzle, which is doing a little investigative work on the origins of the glass plates themselves.

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.