By Sean Charette

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The field of photograph conservation is characterized by a network of professionals who have built a strong community of practice, defining photograph conservation as a distinct specialization within conservation. This international community of photograph conservators is a dynamic one, as reflected in the work of professional associations such as the ICOM-CC Working Group Photographic Materials and the Photographic Materials Group of the American Institute for Conservation.

However, despite these strengths, there is a need within the field for additional trained photograph conservators to deal with an ever-expanding range of photographic materials, especially in parts of the world where formal training in the conservation of photographs is lacking. One such region consists of central, southern, and eastern Europe, whose museums, archives, and libraries are home to a rich heritage of artistic and documentary photographs. A needs assessment conducted by the Getty Conservation Institute in 2006 clearly indicated that interest in preserving this heritage is strong among conservation professionals in this region but that educational opportunities to aid in this preservation effort—particularly at the academic level—are limited. In recent years, the Northeast Document Conservation Center of Andover, Massachusetts, has offered in the region several short courses on various photograph conservation topics. As successful as these courses have been, there remains a large group of regional professionals—conservators, curators, librarians, and archivists—who are interested in acquiring additional expertise in understanding and caring for photographic heritage.

A Regional Initiative

Following the needs assessment, the GCI partnered with the Academy of Fine Art and Design (AFAD) in Bratislava, Slovakia, and the Slovak National Library in Martin to advance regional photograph conservation through an education initiative entitled Conservation of Photographs and Photograph Collections for Countries of Central, Southern, and Eastern Europe. This multiyear initiative has a number of objectives, including providing theoretical and practical knowledge of photograph conservation through an ongoing series of summer schools and distance learning activities. It draws upon the expertise of the international community of photograph conservators to provide training and resources and to encourage the development of a new and enduring network of photograph conservation professionals in the region.

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A three-year regional course entitled Fundamentals of the Conservation of Photographs is the first component of the initiative. The course combines classroom instruction with distance learning activities that extend teaching and learning beyond the confines of the classroom. In the context of the conservation of photographs course, distance learning is linked to practical workplace experience, and it incorporates a variety of teaching tools, including use of a course Web site, application of course lessons to workplace situations, and distance mentoring conducted by course instructors via the Internet.

Each year, or module, of the course begins with a two- or three-week summer school and is followed by eight months of distance learning and mentoring. During this period, participants carry out capacity-building activities within their own collections, applying learning acquired during the summer school with the ongoing support of course instructors/mentors.

The seventeen course participants are conservators, archivists, and other professionals responsible for the care of photographic collections. The same core participant group is maintained throughout the course, in order to facilitate the formation of professional networks. The course instructors and mentors, established leaders in photograph conservation, use a team-teaching approach in the classroom and during distance mentoring—an approach that incorporates a variety of perspectives and allows healthy discussions to develop.

Module 1 of the Fundamentals of the Conservation of Photographs course began with a three-week summer school held at AFAD in Bratislava from July 21 to August 8, 2008, followed by the distance learning and mentoring phase of the module, which runs through April 20, 2009. Module 2 of the course will begin with a summer school in Slovakia in the summer of 2009.

Extending Learning

Extending learning beyond the classroom is a critical part of the Fundamentals of the Conservation of Photographs course. This component allows course participants to continue to develop their knowledge and practical skills in their own workplace within a structured framework of learning and guidance. Participants become comfortable making decisions and applying new skills within the context of their own collections, as well as communicating conservation concerns and ideas to their colleagues.

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For example, the program of distance learning used for the first module of the course consists of one primary activity—the survey of a small collection of photographs (a personal or family collection). The survey includes a number of tasks that are carried out over the eight-month distance-learning period, with participants presenting the results of these tasks in a series of reports. The initial report describes the collection in terms of processes and parameters; the second describes the collection's condition and priorities as identified by the participant. The final report outlines a detailed conservation plan addressing such subjects as conservation treatment and preventive conservation recommendations; access to the collection and related issues of documentation and digitization; and funding sources for the collection's conservation and maintenance.

The reports are posted to the course Web site. Mentors review them and provide comments that are shared among the group, so that others may read and discuss them. The course Web site includes a discussion forum that may be used in this way or utilized for more general discussions.

There are also less formal activities, which do not involve scheduled assignments. For example, participants are encouraged to build their own photographic study collection for teaching and reference purposes. They may request and receive guidance from course instructors and make use of analytical equipment at summer schools to fully characterize and understand these study collections. In addition, with the support of course instructors/mentors, participants are encouraged to address research questions that will advance the field (particularly important at this time of significant change in the field of photography) and to disseminate information and resources through professional activities.

The course Web site plays a crucial role in the distance-learning phase of the project and in promoting communication.

In addition, it serves as a central reference point for information and documents related to the course. All of the teaching material created or compiled for the course—articles, bibliographies, handouts, and other material developed by the instructors—is maintained on the course Web site and is available for participants to read or download at any time.

Instead of a series of separate workshops, this initiative provides a learning process that participants themselves help shape through ongoing dialogue. The three-year format of the course extends learning and facilitates communication with the goal of building a network of informed, well-connected, and active conservation professionals in central, southern, and eastern Europe. This growing community of conservation professionals will, in turn, contribute to the strength of photograph conservation as a profession and help the profession meet the challenges of conserving photographic heritage.

Sean Charette is a project specialist with GCI Education.

For specific information regarding the content and curriculum of the Fundamentals of the Conservation of Photographs course, visit the project Web site.