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Conserving our Photographs

The Indianapolis Museum of Art has been awarded a grant by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which is a federal program designed to offer assistance to important projects undertaken by museums and libraries for the care of their collections. Our grant has enabled us to launch a museum-wide condition survey of our photography collection, which is overseen by various curatorial departments. The photographs range in date from 1847 to 2012 and offer a diverse exploration of photographic processes and schools.  The IMA is committed to increasing both the numbers and the visibility of photographs in the galleries, and to move forward responsibly we must understand the special vulnerabilities of photographs and work to ensure their long-term stability.

While the IMA has had a Conservation Department since the 1970s, there has never been a staff specialist in photographic care. The IMLS grant has allowed us to contract Paul Messier, an internationally respected photograph conservator, to come to Indianapolis to give us his observations concerning the physical condition of each photograph, along with detailed suggestions for storage and display. With this information, IMA staff will be able to create a comprehensive program of care for photographs that will directly address their unique preservation concerns.

In addition to the survey of collection photographs, Paul Messier will advise on a project that will be undertaken by the IMA Conservation Science department to discern the levels of light tolerance for different types of photographs. This is a vitally important issue for photographs, particularly the color processes of both film and digital technologies. At this time, photographs are changed frequently in the galleries in an attempt to prolong their original aesthetic qualities by reducing their exposure to light (which is known to cause fading and shifting in some colors). These findings will help us fine-tune display durations for individual photographs in response to specific test data.

We are excited to welcome Paul Messier to Indianapolis and enter into a new era of focused attention on photographs. We hope that our work with these collections will result in exhibitions, programs, and information sharing that can be enjoyed with our patrons and the broader community of photography lovers everywhere. Please stay tuned!

Filed under: Conservation, The Collection

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