Almost all the Way to Timbuktu: A Photograph Conservation Workshop and Re-housing Project in Mali

Almost all the Way to Timbuktu:

A Photograph Conservation Workshop and Re-housing Project in Mali

by Heida Q.S. Shoemaker

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I visited Mali in the summer of 2011, and fell in love with the country. I knew I had to return, and had to do something that would mean something, that would be a contribution to the people of Mali, and enriching for my own career as a conservator. My plan was to visit the site of the ancient manuscript libraries of Timbuktu, many of which were recently consolidated in a new conservation center (IHERI-AB). I had been invited by Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, a curator who is one of the initiators of the preservation of these invaluable medieval African manuscripts. I wanted to view the training and preservation efforts at this site, and discover a way in which I could become involved in this important work. Unfortunately, a few months after making my plans, a coup d’état, and subsequent rebel insurgency in Northern Mali, rendered this plan impossible.
I had to switch directions, literally. Being both a photograph and a paper conservator, I chose to concentrate on the subject of photograph conservation instead. Bamako, the bustling capital city of Mali, is an important center of contemporary photography in Africa. The African Photography Biennial (“Rencontres de Bamako”) is held in Bamako every two years. This collection of exhibitions highlights the current contemporary photographers working in Mali and the rest of Africa today. Photography as a profession has also become an important route for young Malians – both fine-art and commercial photography. There are also many collections of historical and ethnographic photography, housed in  various institutions in Bamako.  All of these collections of photography are very important, and it is known by those charged with their care, that their preservation for current and future study and cultural heritage is paramount. Yet there is a lack of vocabulary, knowledge of conservation techniques, and resources in Mali, which I believed could be addressed through international exchange, collaboration, and education.
I visited many institutions in Bamako, to gain an understanding of the environment in which collections of important historical and contemporary photos were being cared for. The strongest connection I made during this second trip in 2012, was with the private photography school, CFP (Cadre de Promotion pour la Formation en Photographie).
I decided that I would initiate my contribution to the preservation of photography in Mali by running a workshop, hosted by CFP.

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 The Workshop – “Preservation of Photography”

The workshop at CFP (Cadre de Promotion pour la Formation en Photographie) was planned for two days in October 2013.  This setting was chosen because of the students background and training in digital photography, as well as in traditional darkroom techniques. The director of CFP, M. Sogodogo, was trained originally as an Art Conservator, at the Musée National in Bamako, and he has maintained an interest in the preservation of the photography that the students create, as well as the preservation of the work of well-known Malian photographers in his care. He also stresses the importance of learning about traditional black & white photography, both in terms of creation, and care. The students at CFP were the perfect candidates for studying how to save prints and negatives from the dangers of age, light, pollutants and natural and man-made emergencies that threaten them every day.

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The workshop, for 15 CFP students, consisted of both lectures and hands-on activities. In this way, the students could be introduced to both the theory and practice of art conservation. The unique combination of science, art history, knowledge of materials, and hand-skills would be demonstrated as being the fundamental aspects of photograph conservation. The first day, the emphasis was on the history of photographic processes and deterioration, from daguerreotypes to digital photography. Stress was placed on the importance of learning about historic processes – how they are made, how they deteriorate, and how they should be preserved – in order to preserve the history and patrimony and archives of Malian culture. Historic albumen prints of Mali from the early 19th century were presented as examples documenting history and the student’s heritage – important records of early colonial presence and architecture and commerce in Mali.
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The second day focused on the environment, storage and treatment of photographs. Along with a power-point presentation, most of the day was given over to hands-on activities, a time for the students to experiment with different treatment techniques for the first time. Prints were bathed in water-baths, paper and adhesive remnants were removed, tears were repaired, and mounting techniques were demonstrated and practiced. In bathing the prints, the students experienced the wide range of factors and consequences of conservation treatment. They witnessed the vulnerability of wet emulsions, and yet saw the stability of a photographic image exposed to water. They learned how water could be the destructive force in a flood, yet it could be the element which also saves the photograph, when a stack of photos adhered together can be separated, and saved.
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The students were amazing – absorbing so much new material, and demonstrating their interest with very complex, thought-out questions.  They especially loved washing various types of photos, and observing the results.  A few of them spoke of their new-found interest in continuing the study of photo conservation. This was one of the goals of the workshop – to begin to build interest in preservation, and equip students and art professionals in Mali with the vocabulary and basic understanding of photo preservation.
9.6a-Bintou Diarra  10. 6b-Zoumana Sidibe
The students received “Diplomas of Participation in the Workshop on the Conservation of Photography”. They were very proud of these, and I was also proud of their interest, hard work and concentration on a subject matter so new to them.
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Re-housing project for the negatives of Malick Sidibé

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The second part of the project was to begin re-housing the negatives of the Malian photographer, Malick Sidibé. Sidibé opened “Studio Malick”, his photography studio in the Bamako neighborhood of Bagadadji, in 1962. He set up studio shots here – of friends, athletes, engaged couples, professionals – and also went to and recorded dance parties of the 60’s, and street scenes of everyday youth in the thriving capital. His personal collection of negatives and contact sheets (glued onto paper folders, “chemises”, and labeled and numbered in his hand-writing) fill one room of his home. His most precious negatives are stored on an open shelf – floor to ceiling – against one wall. Each roll was cut into strips, placed all together in an acidic paper folder, labeled with the date, and stacked in original yellow Kodak film boxes. Red dust, ubiquitous and unstoppable in Mali, covered every surface, and had made its way into the boxes and acidic paper enclosures.

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Having visited Malick the previous year, I decided to concentrate on this collection when I returned the following year. I purchased supplies ahead of time, which I carried in my luggage, arriving at the photographer’s home on the back of another ubiquitous sight in Bamako – a small motorcycle called a Jakarta – which was driven by Malick’s nephew.

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We discussed the project, and I began cleaning a small selection of his medium format b/w negatives, and re-housing them in mylar envelopes and archival boxes. Each envelop was labeled with the same information that Malick had been so careful over the years to mark his negative envelops with. In contemplating the issues involved in this re-housing project, I had considered whether it was more appropriate to leave the original negative housing as Malick had designed it. Yet the stacking of the negatives all together, causing abrasion, and the ever-present heavy dust gathered through the years in the porous boxes, convinced me that a more “archival” protective system was necessary. I also made the choice of mylar over paper enclosures due to the significant consideration of handling. The negatives were handled often, both by the photographer, his sons, and clients. Mylar would protect each negative strip, while providing visibility. Mylar would also render them impervious to dust and pollution, whereas the porous and less-sealed nature of a paper envelop would allow dust to again settle on the negs. Although mylar is not considered ideal in a hot climate, the lack of high humidity made the choice of mylar reasonable in this case, due especially to the high volume of handling predicted. The original paper envelops with the photographer’s hand-writing will be preserved in the new boxes as well.
I was only able to complete a small amount of this work, but hope to continue the project on a larger scale very soon.

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Lastly, to come full circle, I finally met M. Abdel Kader Haidara! During the invasion of Timbuktu in the spring of 2012, it was thought that many of the ancient manuscripts had been destroyed. But thanks to Drs. Abdel Kader Haidara and Stephanie Diakité and others who helped, 300,000 manuscripts were packed in metal crates, and whisked off to safety. They are now biding their time in Bamako, waiting until it is safe enough to go home to Timbuktu. I was fortunate to be able to visit one of the safe-houses where a large group of archivists and technicians are painstakingly archiving and making boxes for each manuscript, storing them in environments controlled by silica gel and de-humidifiers, to mimic the much drier conditions of the desert from which they came. To learn more about this amazing effort, visit the site of T160K (Timbuktu Libraries in Exile) at
With all of the turmoil of the coup, the invasion by insurgent rebels, and the destruction of monuments in many northern Malian cities, it was amazing to see these beautiful, hugely significant books safely protected from harm.
My experience designing, planning, and implementing this project was extremely thought-provoking, stimulating, and satisfying. Each step was led by my long-held dedication to conservation, and my new-found connection to Mali. I would never have guessed that a touristic visit to Mali with my mother three years ago would lead me to standing in front of a group of young eager-to-learn Malian students, or to dusting the surface of the negatives of one of the most important living Malian photographers. I plan to continue this work, broadening my scope by working with other professionals who are interested in the outreach of photograph conservation to Africa. I have joined, as a consultant, a larger project for the preservation and digitization of the archives of multiple Malian photographers, and hope to train the group on the ground who will be implementing this project.  And, I hope to finally make it to Timbuktu, to visit the ancient African manuscripts when they have been returned to their rightful home.
I want to thank:
The American Institute for Conservation Photographic Materials Group (AIC-PMG) for the 2013 Professional Development Stipend Award
The Winterthur Museum and University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation for the 2013 Betty Fiske Professional Development Award in Contemporary Art Preservation
My contributors to my Indiegogo campaign, “Save Photographs in Mali” for their generous contributions and support. See my Indiegogo page at:

The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation for the 2012 Carolyn Horton Grant, which was used for my preliminary trip to Mali for research and making connections, in preparation for the workshop and re-housing project.

Debbie Hess Norris, for providing most of the images used in the workshop presentation. This was an invaluable contribution to my workshop.
Karen Zukor, for providing advice on giving workshops in foreign lands, and for the contribution of supplies to the workshop.
Amadou Ouologuem, for his inspiration for my project, and help with my travels to Mali.
Captions for images:
1. Admin. Minga Siddick (left), H. Shoemaker, CFP students, Director Sogodogo (right), photo by CFP, 2013
2. CFP students bathing photos,  photo by H. Shoemaker, 2013
3.& 4. Left: CFP students bathing photos  Right: Heida demonstrating surface cleaning of negs, photos by CFP, 2013
5. & 6. Left: 19th c. Albumen print of Bamako Market  Right: Contemporary photo of same market, re-built after a fire
7. & 8. Inpainting exercises, photos by CFP, 2013
9. & 10. Left: Student Bintou Diarra showing photo-corners exercise,  Right: Zoumana Sidibé with photo-corners exercise, photos by H. Shoemaker, 2013
11. & 12. Left: Heida (left), CFP students, M. Sogodogo (right) Right: Heida with student Ousmane, photos by CFP, 2103
13. & 14. Left: © Malick Sidibé , “Nuit de Noel” 1963;   Right: © Malick Sidibé “Jeune homme” 1977
15. & 16. Left: M. Sidibé examining his negatives  Right: M. Sidibé’s storage system, photos by H. Shoemaker, 2013
17. Re-housing M. Sidibé’s negatives, photo by A. Cissé, 2013
18. M. Haidara with a Timbuktu manuscript, photo by H. Shoemaker, 2013
About the Author:
Heida Shoemaker is a professional paper and photograph conservator. She received her Masters in Science from the University of Delaware and Winterthur Museum Master’s Program in Art Conservation in 1996.  Since starting her private practice in Berkeley in 1998, she has worked with the general public, framers, and museums to care for their fine art on paper and photographs, family photographs, and archival material. She does contract work for institutions such as the Cantor Art Center, Stanford University; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Berkeley Art Museum; and The DeYoung Museum, SF. Heida has also held a Getty Advanced Fellowship in Paper Conservation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1997 – 1999, and a yearlong fellowship at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Heida has traveled to Mali three times between 2011-2013 to perform research, teach on photograph conservation, and care for Malian photography collections.