From Russia to Laos
Building Global Partnerships to Preserve Photographic Heritage
By Debra Hess Norris, Martin Jürgens, Nora Kennedy, Bertrand Lavédrine, and Paul Messier
conservation work on an old print

Photography collections and their preservation needs are universal. From Laos to Lebanon, these materials include human-readable and more recent born-digital materials, each demanding different preservation strategies. Whether housed in museums, libraries, archives, news agencies, archaeological repositories, or private dwellings, and whether located in sub-Saharan Africa, equatorial South America, or arctic regions of Europe, these collections—ranging from daguerreotypes to cellulose nitrate film negatives to digital prints—may be at risk. Silver and dye-based images fade and discolor, albumen binder layers crack and craze, and gelatin emulsions serve as a nutrient for destructive biological decay. Awareness of the vulnerabilities of these at-risk materials must be increased.

From research libraries to museums to archives globally, the resources and opportunities to guide proper photograph preservation practice are often lacking. While workshops, symposia, webinars, and social media have strengthened communications and possibilities for exchange and for preservation education, they are often too modest in scope or too costly to have a full and long-term impact. Innumerable countries have few to no formally trained photograph conservators. Many major collecting repositories are held privately, and some remain hidden; generally, there is an acute need for on-site and sustained training of all kinds—training that is tailored to specific needs and resources.

Demonstrating the significance and vulnerability of photograph collections is essential. Simplistically, photographic collections may be characterized as fine art or documentary. Increasingly it is the latter category—often massive in size, undervalued, and inadequately documented—that faces the greatest preservation challenge. While digitization and reformatting may be the priority for these holdings, the originals remain threatened and poorly cared for. Unfortunately, digitization programs normally provide little provision for preservation of the originals.



In the United States, the libraries and archives of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) include rich repositories of important photographic and other artifacts that form the core of primary research material for the study of African American history from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights movement. These materials are in urgent need of conservation treatment, rehousing, increased accessibility, and improved environmental conditions. The HBCU collections exemplify a staggering number of photograph collections in the United States, where, according to the 2005 Heritage Heath Index, more than 40 percent are in unknown condition and 22 percent are in need of conservation.

This initiative has the added benefit of strengthening diversity within the conservation field. The future growth of photograph conservation is contingent on the inclusion of different perspectives. For that reason, aggressively building this pipeline and connecting with a more diverse constituency must be a primary focus for the field at large.

In recent years, a highly effective consortium—always critical to success—has been instrumental in bringing about improved preservation of photographic collections at sixteen HBCUs where photograph conservation is in its infancy. This multi-year initiative, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and led by the HBCU Library Alliance, Lyrasis, the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, the University of Delaware, and the Image Permanence Institute, is enhancing preservation practice in these institutions. The program provides practical training in photograph preservation for library staff, assists with project prioritization, stabilizes at-risk collections, educates repositories in cost-effective environmental control, and, most important, introduces HBCU undergraduates to careers in conservation and allied fields. Trainers are identified at each HBCU participant institution to ensure that the lessons learned are shared broadly and are relevant to the challenges faced by collections housed within academic institutions.

This initiative has the added benefit of strengthening diversity within the conservation field. The future growth of photograph conservation is contingent on the inclusion of different perspectives. For that reason, aggressively building this pipeline and connecting with a more diverse constituency must be a primary focus for the field at large.


In large archives, the preservation challenges of sound recordings are connected closely with those of image collections. Original color slide and acetate film collections, as well as sound archives, are frequently in jeopardy. Established in 2007, the Sound and Image Collections Conservation courses (SOIMA) of ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) address the preservation challenges of sound and image collections—related through their materiality and size. Training activities enhance staff capacity to understand and communicate the value, meaning, selection, and use of sound and image collections in various institutional contexts, with the goal of formulating conservation actions while at the same time learning about the materials' physical structures and vulnerabilities. Offered in Rio de Janeiro, New Delhi, and Riga, Latvia, SOIMA incorporates problem-based learning in large classroom settings. Adaptation to technological changes and cost-effective preservation strategies form a key component of the SOIMA initiative.

This training program is one of many that have emerged in recent years—offered on a regional or international basis and focused on sharing fundamental knowledge, building a cohort of professionals, and strengthening the capacity for collections care. The training methodology that consists of short, focused courses with leading experts is proven for the delivery of fundamental preservation information. However, longer-term connecting of instructors and participants via distance mentoring or follow-up coursework, as pioneered by the Getty Conservation Institute, is clearly an ideal model where practical. This approach was successfully used in the GCI's Fundamentals of the Conservation of Photographs course, organized in partnership with two institutions in Slovakia—the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava and the Slovak National Library in Martin—and designed to advance the field of photograph conservation in central, southern, and eastern Europe. The initiative successfully expanded the number of specialized photograph conservators in the area and established a regional network of photograph conservation professionals.


photograph conservation workshop

Photographic materials are the focus of an initiative called the Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative (MEPPI), situated in the Middle East and led by the Arab Image Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the University of Delaware. The treasures in question include early photographs by travelers to the region, as well as images by indigenous photographers whose renderings of Great Pyramids and sphinxes, holy sites, and Orientalist vignettes opened the world's eyes to the history and culture of the region in the nineteenth century. Twentieth-century collections range from detailed documentation of archaeological excavations to studio work capturing neighborhoods and personalities, to photojournalistic images of political tumult. MEPPI, a three-year strategic initiative designed to promote the preservation and awareness of these photograph collections—from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula through Western Asia—has been generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Getty Conservation Institute.

MEPPI commenced in 2011 with three researchers traveling to Middle Eastern countries to survey and collect data about collections of photographs. On-site visits with collection keepers not only assisted in learning about important holdings firsthand but also spread the word about the MEPPI program. The initiative includes three eight-day workshops in Beirut, Abu Dhabi, and a location in North Africa, each one followed by eight months of a distance learning applied practicum and a final three-day meeting with the original workshop participants. With approximately eighteen participants per course, MEPPI will train and connect around fifty preservation professionals. Selected literature and a glossary translated into Arabic will provide lasting resources for future generations. An upcoming symposium for regional policy makers and decision makers that focuses on the photographic heritage of the broader Middle East will connect collection care and allied professionals within and beyond the Middle East. In doing so, the symposium will strengthen cultural heritage preservation efforts of all kinds in this part of the world. (See the article on the MEPPI partnership for more information.)


dagyerreotype documentation workshop

A four-year initiative, administered by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, to establish a photograph conservation department at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is currently under way. This initiative represents a significant chapter in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s longstanding and generous commitment to develop the field of photograph conservation—a field that does not exist in Russia—by providing highly focused education and research opportunities and by firmly establishing photograph conservation professionals at the State Hermitage Museum. Based on a comprehensive survey of the Hermitage's photograph collections, a bilingual computerized inventory was created for forty-four repositories holding over 472,000 photographs. Due to the cultural value and vulnerability of these collections, the Hermitage allocated several staff positions, including one in conservation science, for a centralized department of photograph conservation based in a state-of-the-art storage and curatorial facility currently in the final phases of construction.

Led by an international advisory committee composed of experts in the fields of photograph and preventive conservation, conservation education, documentation, cataloguing, and digital imaging, this initiative trains skilled conservation, collection management, and curatorial staff—building a highly functional team is a central goal—to supervise the cataloguing, care, and preservation of the Hermitage photograph collections. As a result, the newly formed department of photograph conservation at the Hermitage will be a model for best practices in photograph conservation, cataloguing, and digital imaging, elevating practices throughout the museum—including practices for collections of all kinds. This department is unique in Russia and establishes the discipline of photograph conservation in this nation.

The Russian initiative is centered on a series of intensive seminars and workshops hosted by the Hermitage and by numerous institutions in the United States and Europe. To date, nine workshops, led by leading experts,1 have been conducted on-site in Russia and in the United States and Europe, covering topics including cataloguing, digitization and digital documentation, preventive conservation measures for storage and display, photographic process identification, matting, framing, storage material, and fundamentals of conservation treatment. Future goals include the establishment of a dedicated website and online teaching resource. Whenever possible, workshops are reviewed and recapped through presentations at the Hermitage. Staff members in key departments are invited to these presentations, thereby increasing the dissemination of information within the institution. The work within the newly formed department of photograph conservation is augmented by English-language training—deemed essential, given the preponderance of English-language photograph conservation literature—and by support for key personnel to travel to international conferences and seminars. Roughly a year into the initiative, a consensus is emerging that longer-term internships for the conservators may be required in order to deepen treatment experience and critical thinking ability. The opening of the newly constructed conservation lab will allow future training to be increasingly based at the Hermitage. The major anticipated benefit will be direct access to the astonishingly deep and diverse Hermitage collections, many of which were previously hidden, in addition to the promotion of the long-term preservation of individual works of art.


surface cleaning of a photograph

The Buddhist Archive of Photography, funded by the British Library's Endangered Archives Program,2 has promoted an appreciation of the significance of photographs in Laos and offers a highly effective collections care training strategy within this developing country, where preserving cultural heritage has only recently become a priority. Located in Luang Prabang, the historic royal city of Laos, this archive is the first and only local nongovernmental institution to systematically collect and preserve a large number of photographs. Despite years of destruction during and since the revolution in 1975, as well as a significant lack of financial resources, Laos is developing at an astonishing pace. And while the Buddhist Archive of Photography may be a modest institution, the results it has achieved in just the last four years are remarkable. Primary goals include the digitization of photographs for safekeeping and access, production of scholarly publications, and preservation of the originals by preventing theft and insect and mold damage. All of this is a daunting task in a country that tends to renew rather than to preserve the historic, and whose environmental conditions are well suited for biological deterioration.

This initiative was developed by the monasteries of Luang Prabang—not by international NGOs. Highly motivated individuals, including monks, former monks, and consulting conservation professionals, collaborated to provide the Buddhist Archive with a sound foundation within the Buddhist community of monks (the sangha) and the local community of Luang Prabang. The long-term involvement of dedicated foreign conservation experts has proven central to the initiative's success. Regular one-month visits by photograph conservators during the four-year period demonstrate a serious commitment to continuity. These sustained interactions are essential.

Although international norms for cataloguing and descriptions were followed in setting up the archive, it proved essential to retain Lao as the primary language. This allowed the staff to write descriptions without language barriers; later, these descriptions were translated into English. Simultaneously, the first English-Lao glossary of technical photographic terms was produced. Training local staff has been a key element of this project. This training has given a small but dedicated group of monks and former monks an education in archival practice and the conservation of photographs. However, despite the fact that regular salaries are offered for the archive's staff, it has been difficult for the archive to compete with the tempting career opportunities in the growing tourist industry in Laos, and staff turnover has been higher than expected.

The Buddhist Archive was built and is operated by Lao locals—local craftspeople and materials were used almost exclusively. The archive therefore comes from within the Lao society. This approach challenged visiting conservators to find new solutions to problems that had long been solved elsewhere. It also meant that materials that might be chosen elsewhere were deemed inadequate for the climate in Laos (e.g., metal cabinets would quickly rust in the hot and humid environment).

The establishment of the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang offers a superb example of what can be accomplished on a local level with a relatively small budget. Support and teaching by visiting experts is often critical to a project's ultimate success, but it must be requested and not imposed. At times, Western models of best practice within photographic archives must be sidelined and more practical approaches adopted instead. Conservation of photographs must be profitable and contribute directly to social and economic improvements and the sustainable development of communities. Alternative solutions—developed locally, appropriated, and adapted—are essential. These preservation approaches are based on the study of traditional cultures, and combined with innovative technologies allow for more modest operating costs and a wider range of solutions. Likewise, conservation research must integrate traditional knowledge and practices, along with use of local materials.


With collections around the world, traditional practices for handling, storage, cleaning, pest management, and mold mitigation should be considered as a way to provide affordable and practical conservation approaches for archival collections, while contributing to sustainable development.

Although optimal storage conditions for preservation of photographs are now well understood, many photographic repositories lack the financial resources or expertise to implement change. Therefore, appropriate housings may be hard to purchase regionally, and import fees are prohibitive. Alternatives must be considered. For example, countries in Latin American and Asia have developed their own conservation products made with plants little known at other latitudes. Use of bamboo fibers, wicker baskets, or traditional papers such as Saa paper in Thailand, for instance, offer excellent alternatives to cotton fibers and acid-free double-walled storage boxes. Using standard analytical protocols such as the Photographic Activity Test, we must continue to explore adequate local housing alternatives. Participants in the recent Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative, for example, will work with the Arab Image Foundation and the GCI to identify more readily available papers, plastics, and mat boards for safe storage of photographic materials.

Relentless natural and human-made emergencies worldwide have focused attention on the critical importance of disaster planning and well-coordinated response efforts. The successful salvage of photographic materials repeatedly serves as a fulcrum for the recovery of cultural identity. Here, the Internet and other technologies unite professionals globally, allowing for more immediate problem solving as the magnitude of these disasters generates vexing challenges—demonstrated recently as conservators and scientists worldwide conferred remotely to advise on the recovery of the hundreds of thousands of photographs immersed in seawater following the tsunami in Japan. Equally challenging is the protection of collections from war and conflict. Emergency preparedness often requires the relocation of displaced collections to safer headquarters or, more tragically, mandates the intentional destruction of images to safeguard identity, resulting in the recent emergence of memory projects such as the UNESCO Memory of the World Program. These projects protect the documentary heritage of humanity against oblivion, neglect, and deliberate destruction.

Like no other medium, photography is valued across cultural, religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic divides. As such, photograph collections provide an ideal platform for generating awareness and understanding of fundamental conservation precepts, including ethical guidelines, documentation, and preventive conservation measures. Intrinsically valuable in their own right, each of the projects examined here, from Laos to Russia, is united in a greater common purpose aimed at building capacity and making collections of all kinds accessible to scholars and communities now and into the future.

A review of these and other projects and collections worldwide reveals a series of related preservation priorities, including the need for comprehensive collection inventories and conservation assessments. We must introduce standard methodologies and simple tools to better monitor and quantify the changes that alter photographs in continuous and nonreversible ways. We also must establish standardized process terminology and bilingual databases to assist with international documentation and communication, and to further understanding.

All of our activities should be promoted to build visibility. Success spirals and often returns new resources. Partnerships in the Middle East yield new and different preservation opportunities for those regions and beyond. Work at historically black colleges and universities fosters connections for greater diversity, and experiences with on-the-ground emergency response prepare emerging photograph conservators for the out-of-the-box thinking required when working across communities.

While the challenges are imposing, the goals remain clear. We must advance international partnerships; engage policy makers and the public; collaborate across disciplines; demonstrate respect for native communities; strengthen field-based study, training, and diversity; share resources; exploit new technologies; be proactive; think strategically; and affirm the value of our magnificent photographic heritage. Considerable progress has been made, and many promising preservation initiatives are now under way. From photographs on paper to paintings and prehistoric pottery, these targeted preservation efforts are transferable. Through such preservation initiatives, our world can be united—just imagine.

Debra Hess Norris is the Henry Francis Chair of Fine Arts and Chair and Professor in the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware. Martin Jürgens is photograph conservator at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; he has been traveling to Laos regularly since 2007. Nora Kennedy is the Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on the adjunct faculty at New York University. Bertrand Lavédrine is professor at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris and director of the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Collections. Paul Messier, a Boston-based conservator working in private practice, is the codirector of the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation's Mellon-funded Hermitage Initiative in Photograph Conservation.

1. These workshops have been led by instructors representing institutions such as the Winterthur Museum/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Collections, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Weissman Preservation Center at Harvard University.