45th Annual Meeting – Electronic Media Session, June 1st “The David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base: A Wiki-based Solution for Conservation and Exhibition Documentation” by Glenn Wharton and Denna Engel

The initiative

Glenn Wharton, Clinical Associate Professor in Museum Studies at New York University, started the talk by the initial following challenge: how to organize and access the data created by time based media conservators during the treatment process of a contemporary artwork? Based on the MediaWiki platform, this project ended up dealing with larger issues met in time-based media conservation.

Conservation Documentation

Conservators create a lot of documentation, in various formats (notes, videos, drawings, etc.) and one problem is how to organize this information and make it available within an institution. Also, as Wharton mentioned, at the New York University, teachers tend to help and encourage students to work and experiment with different programs.

The David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base

Wharton followed by introducing David Wojnarowicz, an artist and activist who died of AIDS in 1992, who produced, among other materials, paintings, drawings, and videos. His archives left at NYU were the primary sources of information – a page of his journal was shown as an example. In order to complete these precious resources, the students interviewed several persons who worked with the artist, and a computer scientist did technical research on the tools he would have used.

As Wojnarowicz is getting more and more attention internationally today, people worry about how to preserve and exhibit his work. In that regard, the idea was to gather more information available for researchers, curators and conservators. One challenge was to document his “Magic Bow”, found under his bed and containing objects related to several of his artworks. The question here was how to report the very complex relationship between those elements and the actual artwork pieces using a searchable database.

The project goals and system requirements

Deena Engel, Clinical Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences of New York University, presented the goals to be reached by the future database. The idea was, along with conservator students, to think through the approach of the software development, in particular, how to capture the complex relationships between the different elements, with an easy to use interface, and a long term preservation of the data.

In order to select a suitable software, they established the requirements for the future database as follow:

  • Be a support for a directed graph model;
  • Support user authentication;
  • Be an open source software:
  • Require only standard maintenance;
  • Support extensive discoverability for all;
  • Have a clear navigation;
  • Support controlled vocabularies.

In the lab: Software testing

The students used the data collected early to test different softwares – such as Omeka, Drupal, Plone, Collection Space and WordPress. After a lot of searches, they chose the MediaWiki, an open-source software with a strong user community, easy to use and configure, which supports text, image, audio and video medias, allowing for example to publish conservation reports and audio interviews, and filled their technical needs – In particular, they wanted the pages to be available on all types of supports (phones, tablets, etc.).


The content was organized in categories and subcategories; for example the category “Works on Paper” was subdivided in “Drawings”, “Prints”, “Stencils” and “Xeroxes”. The different pages related to each other are connected via hyperlinks; furthermore, the “what links here?” part allows to reach the pages that lead to the current page.

Launching of the database

A Beta Test Session was organized with the NYU students, conservators and archivists, were questions were asked, in particular about the user interface, the user experience and the scholarly goals that had to be reached.

On April 21, 2017, a Symposium about David Wojnariwicz’s work was organized at the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University, were the database was presented and launched.

Though, the project is not over! This is an ongoing research, and anyone can contribute by sending pieces of information to: fales.wojnarowicz@nyu.edu.

For the future, the scholars at New York University are interested in working with museum professionals on similar projects, using MediaWiki again or other software – Deena Engel mentioned that she would prefer to experiment with other tools.

This presentation allowed to appreciate the common effort made by scholars, archivists and art historians, as well as computer scientists and curators, in order to make available qualitative information about a contemporary artist’s complex work, in an accessible and intelligent form. Glenn Wharton added that university was a great place for that kind of research, because of the possibility to get research grants, the available time and the deep interest and motivation of the students.


The David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base: http://cs.nyu.edu/ArtistArchives/KnowledgeBase/index.php/Main_Page

Presentation of the Artist Archives project: http://nyuhumanities.org/the-artist-archives-project/

The Artist Archive Initiative: http://cs.nyu.edu/ArtistArchives/Initiative/


45th Annual Meeting – Photographic Material Session, May 31st, “Providing Access to “Overprotected” Color Slides” by Diana L. Diaz-Cañas

Photograph conservator Diana Diaz introduced her presentation as a study case which deals with “overwhelming protection” of photographic materials.

The project started in 2006 when the Harry Ransom Center acquired the photographer Arnold Newman’s archives, including various photographic and other materials, such as photographic albums, sketch books, documentation of many projects… and color transparencies.

More precisely, a corpus of 35 mm Kodak Kodachrome color slides in plastic mounts was found. The slides were wrapped together with sealing tapes, forming in 16 sets. The tapes displayed, on the edge of each pack, handwritten inscriptions indicating the dates and subjects of the photographs. The dates inscribed on the tape enabled to date each project, the whole collection ranging from 1954 to 1972. Diana Diaz showed several examples of the images, like one taken for a project shot in Spain in 1970 for Holiday Magazine.

These slides series are of interest as they inform on the photographer’s working methods. For instance, they showed different cropping, compositions, and exposures experimented within each series. One can see how Newman would play with lights and colors and produce variations of the same images, among which he would then make his final selection for the publication. Diaz then listed all the assignments projects covered in the slides, shot in various places (Spain, Canada, California…) for different magazines, such as Harper’s Bazaar or Life.

However, when the slides were found, the images were still inaccessible since after the removal of the tape applied on one edge displaying the inscriptions, another white tape underneath maintained the stacks of slides together. Three types of tape were identified among the 16 sets:

  1. a masking tape;
  2. a discolored white tape;
  3. a white tape still tacky.

The conservation treatment needed then was difficult to engage because the tapes were in contact, not only with the slides mounts, but also with the films themselves – on both the image and support sides.

Therefore, to remove the tape carrier, Diaz logically proceeded by types of tape.

  • The white tape still tacky was removed mechanically with a spatula, without any adhesive residue left at the end of the treatment.
  • The masking tape was strongly adhered and did require a heated spatula combined with the use of solvents.
  • The discolored white tape was removed with the help of water vapor.

After all the carriers were removed, Diaz evaluated the materials and condition of the residual adhesives in order to determine which solvent to use. She referred to Smith et. al.’s paper1, which not only presents the history of pressure sensitive tape and their ageing properties, but also appropriate solvents and suitable methods of application for their removal. Thus, Diaz used naphtha (a mix of hydrocarbons) to successfully remove the rubber-based adhesive, and ethanol for the oily adhesives. The solvents were applied gently with a cotton swab in a circulation motion and in one direction to minimize the scratches and increase the efficiency.

The photographic documentation under Ultra-Violet illumination allowed to assess the removal of all the adhesives. Finally, the slides were individually rehoused in conservation materials.

Although this treatment was successful, several questions are being raised: Are there remaining solvents residues in the photographic materials at the end of the treatment? Has the surface been scratched? Indeed, the topic of the effect of solvents on color transparencies, in particular regarding the innocuousness for the photographic materials, would require further research to help photograph conservator to choose a suitable treatment.


1 Bibliographic reference: Merrily A. Smith, Norvell M. M. Jones, Susan L. Page, & Marian Peck Dirda. “Pressure-Sensitive Tape and Techniques for its Removal From Paper”
JAIC 1984, Volume 23, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 101 to 113

43rd Annual Meeting – Electronic Media + Objects, May 15th: “Conserving Anthony McCall’s Solid Light Films” by Jeff Martin

Jeff Martin, archivist and conservator, gave a talk about the conservation project of Anthony McCall’s Solid Light Films. It started in 2012, when Pamela and Richard Kramlich gave 6 film installations made by the English artist Anthony McCall in the 1970’s, to the New Art Trust (NAT) which has worked on the preservation and showing of time-based media works, since its creation by the Kramlichs in the 1990’s.
Martin started by presenting the artworks’ history. The 6 solid light films, made between 1973 and 1975, are 16 mm silver films, where “a white dot traces a circle on a black background; and when projected, it creates a volume cone.” The films were projected in different directions, and the viewer has to move around in the light. Then, in the early 2000’s, the digital files allowed an easier installation and projection (in particular, vertically). McCall took this opportunity to revisit his work of the 1970’s and created new installations on a digital support using digital projection.
Subsequently Jeff Martin introduced the conservation, presentation, and digitalization work done by the conservator and the NAT for the solid light films. These were first considered as traditional silver films, and consequently the choice has been to make exhibition copies. Though, creating 16mm films appeared to cause specific technical problems, the main one being the need to get a double perforated film, which is only available today by special order to Kodak, and is expensive. The obstacles led the conservator to think about making a digital remake of the films. In order to know if this option would fit with the artist’s intention, Martin interviewed McCall and collected pieces of information about the history and the technique of the solid light films. Martin précised he had been “very careful not to apply his own proposition but to respect the original installation.” Finally, the choice was made to project the original installation on 16mm films, and to create new masters for all of the films, but for the future, the question of the digitalization remains open, especially because McCall says that he changes his mind all the time!
To a photography conservator, this talk was interesting, as it was bringing a different point of view on photographic material preservation and presentation. Indeed, even if the McCall artworks’ physical materiality is photographic, its existence is the result of the light passing through the film and extending into space. In this case, what has to be preserved and shown is not as much the film in itself (which has to be preserved too), but the light manifestation that results of it, and the sensation produced to the visitor who can penetrate it, which could indeed be reproduced by a digital copy… especially as the artist switched to digital projection in his 2000’s creations.
Martin ended the talk by saying that all the work done to preserve the installations started from the original films and materials, and he emphasized on the collaboration with the artist, which has been essential to achieve this project.

43rd Annual Meeting – Photographic Materials, May 14th: “Organizing a Photograph Preservation Workshop in West Africa” by Debra Norris

Debra S. Norris, Chair of the Art Conservation Department and Professor of Photograph Conservation at the University of Delaware, is enthusiastic about fund raising for art conservation. Along with her coauthors, Nora W. Kennedy and Bertrand Lavédrine, she encourages conservation education and the expansion of international networks for all conservators. These two major contributions for the conservation profession were the bases for the project presented during this talk: Organizing a Photograph Preservation Workshop in West Africa.
Norris started by evoking the need for photographic conservation in West Africa, and the previous projects organized in Sub-Saharan Africa by the Getty, ICCROM, the Ford Foundation, SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) and UNESCO. Then she presented the “3PA”: Préservation du Patrimoine Photographique Africain (Preservation of Photographic Heritage in Sub Saharan Africa), a collaborative project developed with Nora W. Kennedy, photograph conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and Bertrand Lavédrine, director of the Conservation Research Center (CRC) of Paris. Their goal is to work on the improvement of the preservation practice in this particular area of the continent, where the photographic collections are highly valuable but vulnerable because of the environment.
Last year, from the 22nd to the 25th of April, a workshop has been held at the Ecole du Patrimoine Africain (EPA), in Porto-Novo (Benin). It was called “Préservation du Patrimoine Photographique Africain: West African Image Lab“. 21 participants (80% of them were artists or photographers, the others were museum and archive professionals and curators) attended the workshop, and discussed the preservation of local photographic collections of West Africa; adapted solutions were proposed. Organizers were Jennifer Bajorek and Erin Haney, co-creator of the Resolution organization. Founded in 1998 with the help of UNESCO and ICCROM, and based in Porto Novo in Benin, the EPA school offers a professional training for 26 sub Saharan countries. It is a non-profit institution, dedicated to photographic collections in Africa, with a focus on preservation, collection management, and exhibitions.
Norris then evoked Nigerian photographers and collectors met by Nora W. Kennedy and Peter Mustardo, photograph conservator and director of the Better Image in New York, who went to Nigeria. She shortly presented the work of three of them: Andrew Esiebo, Abraham Oghobase, and J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, whose artist book, containing 200 photographs, was published a few months after he passed away, in 2014. Kennedy and Mustardo met his son who owns the collection.
As Norris aims to connect different conservation initiatives, she promoted the project “History in progress Uganda”, created in 2011 by a Dutch photographer and an advertiser. Their goal is to acquire and to diffuse images about Uganda history. According to Norris, this action, like 3PA’s, must proceed in connection with education and community organization.
She promoted the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos (Nigeria), “an independent non-profit making visual art organization set up in December 2007 to provide a platform for the development, presentation, and discussion of contemporary visual art and culture” (see their website). Bisi Silvia, the founder, curator, and director of CCA was a participant of the 2014 workshop at the EPA.
For the future, 3PA’s goals will consist in organizing more workshops to teach the fundamentals in photo preservation in sub-Saharan countries. The conservation professionals will explain “the keys concepts in preventive conservation and materials”, spend some time on both hands-on and lecture, visit collections, and share some tools kits and published resources. Brainstorming sessions about techniques will follow. She emphasized on the fact that the 2014 workshop was the first talk about conservation in French and English in Africa. As photographers are an important part of the participants, development of conservation strategies for photographers in West Africa will be discussed. Funding for the workshop in photograph preservation was made possible thanks to many sponsors that Norris listed – AIC/PMG was one of them.
Some observations were done. First, to Norris, “community engagement and connections are clear” in Africa, which is a wonderful advantage. Then, the specific challenges: “lack of electricity”, and “dealing with material and digital collections simultaneously”. For the EPA, in Benin, where the workshop happened, the next steps will consist in “renewing commitment to preservation of photo collections”. Thanks to the “saving photo heritage” website, they began to rise money to create “a major center for photographic preservation, archiving, and digitization on the African continent”. Every one can help them!
The next 3PA workshop will be held in 2017 in Zimbabwe.
She finished the talk with a quick look on beautiful African textiles!
To discover the Nigerian photographers:
About the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos: http://www.ccalagos.org
About the Ecole du Patrimoine Africain in Porto Novo: http://www.epa-prema.net
Resolution organization: https://www.resolutionphoto.org
History in Progress Uganda: http://www.hipuganda.org
To help Saving the Photographic Heritage: https://t160k.org/campaign/help-save-africas-photographic-heritage/