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Friday, May 30 • 3:10pm - 3:30pm
(Case Studies in Sustainable Collection Care Session) Case Study: Implementing a research-driven, sustainable, preventive conservation solution developed during an extended grant-funded project

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George Eastman House International Museum of Photography & Film is implementing a sustainable preventive conservation solution based on real-time emergent scientific research that portends to dramatically redress an intractable conservation and preservation challenge. This paper specifically charts the progression of a Save America’s Treasures award (NEA-2008) to rehouse its endangered collection of 1,250 daguerreotypes made by the Boston partnership of Southworth & Hawes. Considered to be masters of this first photographic medium, the Museum’s Southworth & Hawes collection is the largest holding from a single daguerreotype maker in the world. The grant was straightforward: to survey and photo-document the collection; fabricate 2008 best practices plate packages; place them in high quality cabinetry; and install them in a newly constructed vault with climate control and filtration systems to maintain low relative humidity and ultra-filtered air.

The project has changed dramatically since 2008. The Museum continues to pursue the essential goal of the grant: to provide the best possible preservation conditions for the Southworth & Hawes daguerreotypes. As it turns out, the best possible preservation conditions for the daguerreotype is an inert gas environment. Concurrent scientific research by the Museum, in conjunction with the University of Rochester through an NSF-SCIART award that began in 2010, has conclusively revealed that daguerreotypes are subject to nano-level deterioration, often biological in origin that progresses in a standard air environment, no matter how filtered or well controlled. Considering these results and the sub-standard conditions that were compromising the collection, the Save America’s Treasures grant was challenged, mid-stream, to respond to these emerging research results, and responsibly consider the benefits –if not the necessity– of an oxygen and moisture free environment for this project. This research spurred the Museum to innovate a low cost argon charged item-level enclosure system. The specifications include: inert materials throughout; construction design for long-term argon retention; functional ease for access to the interior and safe placement of the daguerreotype; full visibility of the daguerreotype –front and back; an aesthetic appropriate for research and access in an archive setting; durability for handling and access; an external monitoring system to ensure argon retention; and an efficient purging and argon charging design, or re-charging, when deemed necessary by the monitoring data.

The details of this innovation are significant, but the theme of this paper is on the dynamics of adjusting course within a project, within an institution, and the challenge of incorporating emergent research into new sustainable preventive conservation solutions that are without precedent at this scale. Not only is this case-study appropriate to sustainability (ideal environment, economics, and no additional energy demands), but its reach may help embolden our profession to make decisive assessments and adopt new standards and modalities –and especially consensus– in treatments and preservation strategies accordingly. Conservation, in our profession, semantically invokes both conserve and conservative. As demands for sustainable conservation practices increase, we must not let reflexive conservative thinking hinder rapid translation from innovation to adoptable practice. This requires a new paradigm for the field.

Session Moderator(s)
avatar for Sarah Nunberg

Sarah Nunberg

conservator and research fellow, The Objects Conservation Studio, LLC and Pratt Institute Department of Mathematics and Science
Sarah Nunberg is a conservator in private practice with a MA in archaeology from Yale University, an MA in Art History and a Certificate in Conservation from New York University, Institute of Fine Arts. She has published work in materials research and environmental management and most recently in a collaborative project with Northeastern University and Museum of Fine Arts Boston in Life Cycle Analysis. Since 2008, Ms. Nunberg has expanded her... Read More →


Ralph Wiegandt

Project Conservator, George Eastman House
Ralph Wiegandt began his career in conservation as an objects conservator. Following his graduate training at the Buffalo State College Art Conservation Program (in Cooperstown, NY) he took a position at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and then the Rochester Museum & Science Center in Rochester, NY. His involvement in photograph conservation began in 2003 as an advisor to the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at... Read More →


Nicholas Bigelow

Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Rochester
Dr. Nicholas Bigelow. Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester is the Principle Investigator on the National Science Foundation grant. While his specific field of study is far from the daguerreotype or photograph conservation, he is an enthusiastic supporter of the interdisciplinary connections between museums and research universities joined in challenging intellectual scientific pursuit that has no... Read More →

Friday May 30, 2014 3:10pm - 3:30pm
Grand Ballroom A