Topics in Photographic Preservation 1993, Volume 5, Article 8 (pp. 73-83)

Curatorship and Conservation at The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center: The Evolution of a Process

By Roy Flukinger and Barbara Brown


The Photography Collection and the Conservation Department at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center share a mutual goal: the care and preservation of the materials in this collection. While each department has its own agenda and functions, the efforts and research conducted in one department complements that undertaken in the other. This paper briefly describes the history, activities and the underlying philosophies of these departments, and the interactions involved in the decision-making processes and subsequent work. The projects demonstrating these collaborations range from the treatment and care of an entire archive of photographs, to that of an individual photograph. The joint efforts involved in mounting exhibitions and how these efforts contribute to the content of the exhibit will be noted, as will the system developed at the HRHRC for establishing priorities for conservation and preservation work. This system was developed to establish a strategy for the conservation and preservation of all of the collections at the HRHRC.

The Photography Collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center began in 1963 with the purchase of the Helmut and Alison Gernsheim Collection. At the time of its purchase, it was the largest collection of photohistorical material in private hands. Since then, numerous collections of photographic material, both historic and contemporary, have been added to the HRHRC archive. The current holdings of the Photography Collection include: five million prints and negatives; 35,000 volumes in the research library; and an equipment archive of 3,000 pieces. Manuscripts and memorabilia relating to historic and contemporary figures in photography are also included in these collections.

The Photography Collection is a center of considerable activity. In addition to the study of its materials by researchers in the Photography Collection reading rooms, there are numerous telephone and correspondence requests for information. These range from publishers' requests for individual photographs which are to be used in books and periodicals; to research inquiries involving analyses of the works of photographic artists. An in-house photographic darkroom and studio fills requests for materials such as copy prints, slides, and transparencies. The Photography Collection maintains an active exhibit schedule in the gallery which it shares with the departments of Film and Theater Arts. Numerous pieces from the collections are prepared and loaned for exhibition at established institutions world wide.

The Conservation Department of the HRHRC was started in 1981 under the direction of Don Etherington, former Chief Conservation Officer and Assistant Director of the Center. What was once a small department now occupies almost an entire floor and includes a paper conservation lab, a book conservation lab, a photographic conservation lab, a preservation housing lab and an exhibits preparation lab. The collaborative efforts of all of the labs are vital to conservation and preservation work at the Center. As noted in a 1990 draft of a statement of purpose, the Conservation Department provides advice and service to the HRHRC in all matters related to the protection of the Center's collections.

The Conservation Department works to increase and safeguard the longevity of the Center's collections through encouraging preservation awareness, promoting in-house training programs, developing specialized solutions for preservation problems, maintaining disaster planning and recovery programs, and monitoring environmental conditions in storage and processing areas throughout the Center. These activities serve to improve the immediate condition of the collections and should ensure their availability for future research.

Toward these ends, the preservation section provides archival housing appropriate both for use and long-term storage of the collection. Some housing projects are carried out by the preservation housing lab. Other housing projects are carried out by the Photography Collection staff with input from Conservation staff on appropriate housing formats and quality of materials. The exhibit preparation staff of the Conservation Department facilitates safe exhibition of the HRHRC collections. This includes proper handling and the incorporation of aesthetic and archivally appropriate techniques in the preparation and installation of collection items for exhibition. In addition, they provide safe packaging for items during transit. Department staff also monitor and control exhibition environments, and document the condition of exhibited items before and after the exhibit. A staff of seven full-time conservators provide advanced conservation treatment for individual collection items. All of the conservators work cooperatively to develop individual treatment goals and procedures, and work together on complex treatments, tapping the strengths from each speciality.

The collaborative relationship between the Photography and the Conservation Departments is demonstrated in the following examples. A few case studies representing some of the common problems encountered, and the reasoning involved in treatment options and in subsequent treatments will be discussed. There is much discussion, questioning, theorizing and research in making these decisions. The determination of treatment procedures is a process that involves the active participation of the curator of photography, the photographic conservator, and information from professional colleagues.

Acquisition of a photographic archive

The interdependent efforts of the two departments were heavily drawn upon in response to a recent gift from the family of Harvey and Julius Patteson. The collection comprises the extant archives of three generations of a local photographic firm that worked in the San Antonio area from around 1910 through the 1970's. The photographic business is represented in its entirety and the archive includes negatives and prints, daily business records, and supply lists and orders, for a total of 480 linear feet of material as well as approximately 3,069 cubic feet of equipment. This archive is rare in that it provides the entire record of a commercial firm during a period in American photography when such establishments flourished. In short, it is a curator's dream.

While the Patteson Collection may be a curator's dream, it also qualifies as an entomologist's delight, and … a conservator's nightmare. Having been housed in a commercial storage facility for at least ten years, under uncontrolled environmental conditions in the extreme climatic conditions of Texas, the collection exhibited considerable insect, and some rodent damage, as well as evidence of water and mold damage, and layers of grime overall.

In spite of pre-planning and research, the accessioning procedure for such an enormous collection in such poor condition was an overwhelming task which required the work of any and all available HRHRC staff. First the materials were sorted. The heaviest layers of grime, dust, and insect debris were removed while the materials were on the loading dock of the HRHRC, before the materials entered the building. The curator was in constant communication with the Patteson family regarding the disposal of items that weren't salvageable, such as water and mold damaged panorama negatives and their boxes which had become a single, fused mass. Materials to be disposed of were never brought into the building.

Preliminary sorting of materials was conducted, and three general groups were established. This was done to aid in assessment of materials that required treatment for insect infestation, and to aid in their future sorting, rehousing, and cataloguing. Equipment and miscellaneous objects formed one category. These items were transferred to a secure University off campus storage area, to be sorted and inventoried later by the curator.

Boxes of glass plate negatives were placed in the second group. These boxes, often containing film negatives and paper-based photographic prints among glass plate negatives, were retained in a room near the loading dock of the HRHRC which has been designated as a quarantine room. This room is a holding area where new acquisitions can be inspected for problems such as mold and insect infestation before the materials are cleared for entry into the library proper. Under the guidance of conservation staff, Photography Collection staff sorted, dusted, examined for insects, and rehoused the paper, film, and glass based materials in archival folders for vertical storage in document boxes. In this process, materials were grouped according to type and transferred from their original deteriorated boxes to archival document cases. Glass plate negatives were housed together, all the film negatives were housed together in other boxes, as were the photographic prints. Any identifying information from the original housing (boxes) of this group of materials was retained in one of the new boxes and also written in pencil on the folders in which the items were rehoused. Individual inspection of all of these materials allowed the conservators supervising the work to determine that there was no evidence of insect infestation in the prints or negatives. The packaging, which did have signs of infestation, was discarded.

The third category was comprised of materials that could be frozen with few detrimental consequences, including paper, film, prints and bound volumes. Glass plate negatives were not included in this category because of the potential for damage to the emulsion upon freezing and inspection revealed that they had not attracted insects. The overwhelming evidence of insect infestation made freezing of these materials an appropriate strategy. Staff and time were limited and the amount of the materials made individual selection impossible. The decision to freeze the materials to eradicate insects was based on previous discussions with Mary-Lou Florian, of the Royal British Columbia Museum, and work based on the methods described in her article1. In retrospect, we recognize the potential stresses which may be placed on photographic emulsions subjected to severe changes in relative humidity as influenced by temperature, as cited in Mark McCormick-Goodhart's presentation at the 1992 AIC annual meeting2. The obviously flourishing insect population evident in the materials outweighed any other possible risks to the materials. The infestation also posed a threat to the rest of the HRHRC collections as a whole.

In preparation for freezing, the materials were divided into small, physically manageable groups, and wrapped in polyethylene sheeting. These packages were placed on book trucks, loaded onto a van and taken to a walk-in freezer located several blocks away on the University of Texas campus. The materials were brought down to a temperature of -20°C within 18 hours and held at that point for a little over 72 hours. After that time, the freezer was turned off and the materials were allowed to return to room temperature over a period of 12 hours. The materials were transported back to the HRHRC, where they were inspected for any insect activity or moisture in the packages. Neither was found, so the packages were delivered to the photography collection storage area. A total of 220 linear feet of materials was frozen.

The initial inventory of this collection requires that the collection be closed for two years until the cataloguing can be completed. The Patteson family has agreed to this restriction. When cataloguing is complete, the materials in the collection will be evaluated to determine what level of further treatment or housing is appropriate.

The acquisition of this collection involved questions about whole collections or archives — not only the management of those we possess, but the even greater problem of what to acquire or not acquire. One may pre-plan, research and target, but collection development can still become haphazard since it is often governed by a variety of human factors, including whim, money, death and/or taxes. Surmounting the challenge of assessing, treating, cataloguing and managing large bodies of materials, one must face from the very beginning how the potential acquisition of any such collection, particularly one in poor condition, will tax the staff, resources and budget of an institution. The handling of any large body of photographs cannot do otherwise than have an impact upon all the staff, whether it moves into, within, or through an institution.

Treatment of two photograph albums

Few photographs exist in a vacuum. Most acquire a nature, presence, and with time, a provenance beyond their singular being. Certainly one of the richest contexts, with great potential for learning and appreciation, is the bound volume or album. How photos work with other photos in a structured system is revealing and enriching, not only with regard to the images themselves, but also to the individuals, the culture and the times which engendered them. A sequence or pairing can say much about how one thought of the photographs and the subjects they delineated and/or interpreted. Likewise, the word contextualizations of photographs, such as captioning and indexing, reveal richer levels about the creators and the generations of individuals who further maintained this visual heritage. Photographic albums and the question of their treatment and preservation, therefore, will continue to be taken seriously.

Two albums recently treated by the HRHRC conservation staff were the Cundell album and the C.D. Arnold album. Differences in the historical, physical, and contextual features of the artifacts dictated what type of treatment was appropriate in each case.

The Cundell album is a small volume, intimate in scale — being easily held in two hands — filled with salted paper prints and a few photogenic drawings by George S. Cundell, dating from between 1842–47. The collection of images reveals the breadth and depth of experience and vision of an early photographic pioneer. Several factors contributed to the treatment decision for this album. Curatorial considerations determined that the album format is very important as it dates to the earliest years of photography Conservation assessment of the condition of the photographs also suggested that the album format was a suitable housing. Salted paper prints and photogenic drawings are very susceptible to damage from light exposure and had been safeguarded from the light within the album format. There had been minimal or no abrasion to the photographs as a result of turning the pages. The album leaves, although appearing very discolored, were found to have a high linen rag content through microscopic fiber analysis. Although the paper was weakened from use, it was flexible and provided a suitable support for the photographs. The adhesive used to attach the photographs to the pages had not discolored, and although some prints exhibited slight cockling in spots around the location of the adhesive due to the moisture of application, it did not present a hazard to the prints or the overall structure. The front cover of the album was broken off at the joint and was missing. The sewing was weak and many leaves were loose or detached. Due to the historical significance of the album and prints, and the satisfactory physical condition of the album leaves and prints, the album was rebound. The historical significance of the album and prints led to the decision to keep the rebound volume as close to the original structure as possible.

The pages of the Cundell album were not numbered, so a collation of pages, tabs, and inserts was made. The book block was disassembled, the spine folds were guarded where necessary, and the pages were mended. While the text was disassembled, it was recorded on microfilm, providing a record of the images and information and the presentation sequence. Use of the microfilm reduces the need to access the original, thus affording a level of physical protection to the object as well. The book was resewn, and rebound with the original back board and a new, leather-covered spine and front board. No cosmetic tinting was performed on the original materials. The original spine leather was too fragile to withstand being reattached as it would not have been able to flex with the new spine piece. It was retained separately and adhered to a stub included in the back of the text block. The missing front paste-down was replaced using a paper similar in color to the text paper.

Lifting and detached edges of photographs were reattached to the pages using tiny hinges of Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. Three loose photographs were found laid in among the pages of the album. The location for one was found by using a Mylar® template tracing of the pattern of adhesive residue, and this print — with the curator's collaboration and permission — was reattached to the album page as described above. The original locations within the album of the other two prints are unknown. They were retained, housed separately, and stored with the information as to where they had been found, with the album inside a clamshell box.

In contrast to the Cundell album, the C. D. Arnold album is quite large, containing 50 platinum prints taken by Arnold at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892–93. The challenge with this object involved weighing the presentation qualities versus aesthetic and logistical problems. This album is huge and unwieldy, requiring two people to move it safely (for the album and the user). Although the binding structure was basically sound, the front and back covers had deteriorated at the joint and were coming off. The oversized pages caused the prints to flex and bend when the leaves were turned, resulting in creases, dents, and signs of abrasion to the photographs. White paper photo corners held the prints in place, but the photographs tended to slide out of the paper corners as each page was turned and flexed. To avoid this, many of the prints had been spot mounted along the edges. The adhesive had caused cockling and distortion, from the moisture of application, and several photographs were torn as a result of attempts to remove photographs from the pages. Severely foxed glassine tissue interleaving was sewn in between each page and the foxing had begun to transfer to and stain the prints. After a great deal of discussion, it was concluded that this particular album format, due to its size, weight, and general unwieldiness presented a great hazard to the photographs and their long-term preservation.

The sequence of the photographs was recorded by numbering each album leaf in pencil. Each print, when removed from the page, was also numbered on the back in pencil with the accession number and a corresponding number identifying the album leaf on which it had been located. The album remains in its original format and, if decided, the format and sequence of the prints and the album could be reconstructed in the future. The prints received some minor treatment and were hinged into window mats, then housed in archival print boxes. These are cross-referenced with the album which is housed in its own phase box and will be stored near the prints.

Treatments of two individual photographs

The individual item is one of the bases for the HRHRC's collection of photographs. It is the primary medium of visual expression for the process — the document or work of art by which the creator of each piece must be judged. The reasons for this creation may be clear and delineated or obscure and confusing. And, our reactions to each may be simple and direct or obtuse and controversial. Each is a tangible entity — worthy of all the human variances of appreciation, criticism and reaction which each viewer may bring to them. However, is the image all and everything? Or do all the variables of time, history, utilization, human interaction and taste or style also bring contextual evidence and influence into our appreciation of each piece? And, if so, to what degree must these shape our deliberations upon the present and future of every photograph in our stewardship? Two individual photographs which will be discussed here are “Bringing Home the May”*, by Henry Peach Robinson, and “Tramp in Marseille” by Brassaï.

The albumen print photograph, “Bringing Home the May”, dates from 1862 and was presented to Helmut Gernsheim by one of Robinson's daughters in 1950. After consultation with Dr. Margaret Harker and the Royal Photographic Society in 1987, it was determined that this is one of the presentation prints Robinson made of this image for members of the RPS. Although this print is not unique in this size or state, it was inherited with its own particular problems. This print had apparently hung on a wall in Robinson's daughter's home for years in a frame smaller than the print. In order to fit the object into the frame, the left and right edges had been folded inward, around the mount. Some time after acquisition by the HRHRC, the print had been removed from the frame and stored next to it. The print was in poor condition. Exposure to light had caused the image to fade and become yellow. The mount was extremely deteriorated and brittle, and had caused further discoloration of the image. The edges of the print were severely creased and torn from folding. The deterioration was not only disfiguring, interfering with the visual appreciation of the image, but presented a physical hazard as well. Because the mount and damaged edges of the print were so fragile, the object could not be safely handled by researchers without risk of cracking the mount and print. For these reasons, it was decided that the original board should be removed. After thorough examination, testing for solubilities, and discussion with the curator, a treatment was proposed and agreed upon.

The photograph underwent extensive and complex conservation treatment which included removing the mount, bathing the photograph, repairing, lining, and remounting it onto a new secondary support of acid-free, all rag board. Removal of the old mount was a slow and painstaking process, complicated by the brittle nature of the board and the delicate condition of the albumen print. Ultimately, the photograph was housed in a window mat for added support and physical protection. The facing layer of the original mount was retained, housed separately, and stored with the matted print.

Brassaï's “Tramp in Marseille” is a 20th-century, developed-out silver gelatin print, dating from 1937. Its condition came under examination in 1989 in response to a loan request for an exhibition. It is adhered to its mount using dry-mount tissue, on mount board and in the presentation format that Brassaï is known to have used. While the mount board is of questionable quality, it is physically stable. Neither it nor the dry-mount tissue appear to have caused any discoloration or other problems for the print. The print is a rare vintage item and the mount is part of its original presentation. These were critical curatorial considerations in this case. The possibilty of damage to the print from contact with the poor quality board and adhesive was determined to be less of a threat since the object is stored in stable environmental conditions, and presented fewer risks than the stresses which would have been placed on the print in the process of removing the mount in this situation. In light of the importance of retaining the original format, it was decided to create a housing that would protect the artifact on its board. The photograph was housed in a sink mat for physical support and protection during travel and exhibition as well as for subsequent permanent housing and storage. Precautions will be taken to limit the cumulative exposure to light over the life of the print.

Conservation and Exhibitions

As photographs have a life and a history previous to their arrival into a collection or institution, so too does their life continue on afterwards. Depending upon the beliefs, policies and practices of the owners and managers, this future life may be one of either greater or lesser activity. The demands may range from the prosaic to the scholarly to the aesthetic, but in all instances some agency of human action with the visual object must take place. And with each interaction comes the potential for further change.

Such interactions include research, seminars, and loans and exhibitions. Exhibitions play an important role in the mission and goals of the HRHRC, and the collaborative efforts of the HRHRC staff are particularly in evidence in the planning and execution of exhibitions. The curator, the registrar, the head of the exhibits preparation staff, and the conservator come together in a loan assessment meeting to review materials requested for exhibit or loan. At this point, the curator has selected the objects for exhibition in order to make a cohesive statement. The conservator offers guidelines for what type of damage may be likely to occur if fragile or sensitive objects are exhibited and recommends any appropriate conservation intervention. The conservator will recommend that any object which is likely to suffer noticeable change or damage if exposed to even minimal light levels not be exhibited. The exhibit preparator notes how the object is to be presented and whether it will require a special construction for safe presentation or packing for travel.

A number of photographs were treated prior to inclusion in the recent in-house exhibition generated by the HRHRC Photography Collection: “Texas Romance: from Landscapes to Lampshades”. As a result of the initial assessment of the materials to be exhibited in this show, conservation staff had recommended that brittle, deteriorated overmats and backing boards be removed from several silver gelatin prints. The mats apparently had been added to the photographs at later dates in the history of the images. The overmats obscured parts of the images, and the boards were weakened and could not be safely handled by researchers. (Photographs which have been spotlighted in exhibits often receive heavy use upon return to the collection). In fact, one of the mounts was cracked, putting the print at risk. Also, it was thought that darkening and discoloration of the images might result if the prints were exposed to light while in contact with the highly acidic boards. The curator had agreed with this decision since the boards were not integral to these images in any way.

The results of the treatments, however, in two cases provided information which altered the original concept and content of the exhibition to some extent. In one case, removal of a poor-quality overmat, not contemporary with the object, revealed the photographer's stamp and caption on the mount, information which previously had been unknown to the curator. This information about the location of the image (Mineral Wells, Texas), and the activity represented within it (a group of sight-seers riding on mules), enhanced the content of the exhibit.

The second case involved an image of a gushing oil well, which appeared to be a quintessential image associated with Texas. Not only was this photograph mounted to a brittle, deteriorated board, but upon unframing, dead insect larva were discovered in holes in the edges of the mat. Work was begun to remove the overmat, which covered part of the image area. Upon removal of the mat, a photography studio name — apparently written on the negative and thus appearing along the lower edge of the image — became visible: “West Coast Art Co., Los Angeles, Cal.” Although, in some respects, it was information the curator didn't want to know in terms of the exhibition, it did reveal something about this photograph, for which there is little or no other information on record in the collection. Needless to say, this particular image was deleted from the exhibit.

A Strategy for Establishing Conservation and Preservation Priorities

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center is one of the world's preeminent institutions for literary and cultural research. Its special collections contain approximately 30 Million manuscripts, 1 million books, 5 million photographs, over 100,000 works of art and an important collection on the theater arts. The strongest holdings are modern materials, which are coincidentally the materials most likely to have conservation and preservation problems. While the HRHRC conservation department is one of the largest in the country, it will never have the staff or resources to adequately address all of the problems in the collections. Therefore a system has been developed to identify treatment priorities. A form was developed to track the objects through the priority review process (Appendix A). The process begins by soliciting input from staff. Any staff member, from pages to curators, may submit information about collection materials they presume to be at risk. The forms are delivered to the department head, who evaluates the importance of the materials in terms of the collection. The Conservation Department then surveys these materials, assessing their condition and presenting treatment options with time estimates. The department heads review these options, weigh the curatorial priorities and the conservation needs of the materials and rank their departmental projects in order of importance. Balancing the conservation and preservation priorities of the various collections with the treatment time estimates and the amount of staff time available, an administrative review committee, comprised of the Assistant Director, the Associate Director and the Chief Conservation Officer establishes a list of priorities. Final approval for the list comes from the Director of the HRHRC.

The procedure is repeated each year and a two year back log of projects is maintained. Flexibility is built in to allow substitution of objects if the change is agreed upon by conservation and curatorial staff. The system has allowed the three separate conservation laboratories to function as a unified department, relying on the strengths and creativity of each conservator as needed. Preservation staff and exhibit preparators also work on projects selected through this system. The Priority system has enabled the conservation staff to more effectively plan their time, order supplies, as well as manage the flow of collection materials through the labs.


With the mutual goal of the care and preservation of the materials in the HRHRC collections always foremost in mind, the process of curatorship and conservation conservation continues to evolve. Our system is not a perfect one. Only time can be the ultimate judge of whether any actions we have elected to undertake are the “correct” ones. Others may choose to agree or disagree with one, some, or all of the decisions presented. Others may possess information or insights which have escaped our perspectives. And others most certainly possess varying independent or institutional affiliations which, in turn, cannot help but affect their opinions. Yet, curators and conservators are entrusted with the responsibility for making decisions about the care of their collections. Two of the basic questions that are considered in making these decisions are: can we do something? and, should we do something? And two disciplines, that of curator and conservator, are involved in making these decisions. To make these decisions involves some level of power and a sense of how not to abuse it; the curator and conservator check and balance each other in this decision-making process. This process and the resulting decisions must consider the surround, the consequences, the other opinions, and the contexts of the actions. This paper has presented examples of the on-going interactions and dialogue between the Conservation Department and the Photography Collection, illustrating steps in the daily procedures and thoughts that surround our work.

[Note: this paper was first presented April 10, 1992 in Windemere, England at the Centre for Photographic Conservation Conference 1992: “Photographs Their Past, Present, and Future”, and is included in the postprints for that conference. The second presentation of this paper was given February 28, 1993 at the 1993 AIC-PMG Winter Meeting in Austin, TX.]

Grateful acknowledgments are extended to Micki McMillan, formerly of the Photography Collection, and to the staff of the Conservation Department, whose efforts and assistance enabled this presentation to come to print.

Appendix A

Request for Status as a Preservation or Conservation Priority



* a more detailed discussion of this conservation treatment was presented during the 1989 PMG Winter Meeting, held in Kansas City, MO, and appears in Topics of Photographic Preservation, Vol.3.

1 Florian, Mary-Lou E. “The Freezing Process — Effects on Insects and Artifact Materials”, Leather Conservation News, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall 1986, pp. 1–13,17. An extensive bibliography is included.

2 McCormick-Goodhart, Mark, and Marion F. Mecklenburg, “Cold Storage Environments for Photographic Materials”, presented to the Photographic Materials Group at the 1992 Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), held in Buffalo, New York, June 2–7, 1992.