Photographs are an important part of our shared cultural heritage—but like all other art forms, they can deteriorate and be lost if not properly stored and preserved. This week on Getty Voices, we take you inside a collaborative project of the Getty Conservation Institute to help preserve the rich photographic collections of the Middle East and train those charged with their care.
The Middle East possesses a rich photographic heritage, yet many of its photographic collections are not catalogued—which means that little shared information on the photographic history of the region exists. And there are few trained conservators in the region to assist individuals and institutions in learning how to properly care for collections.
Fortunately, awareness of the importance of maintaining and caring for the region’s photographs is on the rise. As part of its work to further preservation of the world’s photographic heritage, the Getty Conservation Institute has partnered with the Arab Image Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the University of Delaware to create the Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative (MEPPI). This initiative, funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, focuses on the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
I recently sat down with MEPPI project manager Tram Vo to learn more about the initiative. Launched in 2011, the initiative’s main goals, Tram told me, “are to raise awareness about photographic preservation and to bring training to the region, which lacks access to instruction in the safekeeping of photographs.”
In November 2011, MEPPI launched the first of three courses on photographic preservation for those caring for photographic collections in Middle Eastern countries. Each course involves an eight-day workshop, an eight-month period of practical work at the participant’s institution, and a final meeting to review the work and experience.
During the workshop, participants are taught to identify and properly care for photographs created using various types of processes. “It’s important to learn about the different photographic processes and what kind of deterioration they experience,” Tram told me. Deciding how to store photographs is another focus. “While a certain type of photograph can be safely housed with one material, another kind of photograph, made from a different process, may be harmed by that very same material.” With this knowledge, the colleagues responsible for the care of photographic collections can make well-informed decisions on proper handling and housing. Workshop discussions also cover advocacy, funding, and emergency preparedness.
During the eight-month practical work phase that follows the workshop, participants do three targeted assignments to implement their new knowledge. The first is to give a presentation at their institution about what they learned at the MEPPI workshop. Those not affiliated with an institution write an article or give a public lecture. As their second assignment, participants survey the housing and handling of their collections. They then make recommendations on proper collections care based on what they’ve learned. Participants complete their final assignment at the follow-up meeting, which represents the final phase of training: sharing the work they’ve done over the eight months, what they’ve learned, and what they hope for. By the end of their course, participants have made significant changes in their collections—including reorganization, transport to more suitable storage places, and cataloging.
This week on the Getty Voices Facebook, we’ll share stories from participants in the most recent workshop; on the Getty Voices Twitter, we’ll share more about the MEPPI project and other efforts to preserve photographs around the world.