Prue McKay, National Archives of Australia

Earlier this year I spent two long, hot, beautiful, informative weeks in Prague, attending this course, the third in a series of professional development workshops.

The Getty Conservation Institute Workshop was attended by 17 enthusiastic mid-career professionals from across Europe (including Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Italy), as well as the USA, Argentina and Japan. Our instructors were Bertrand Lavédrine, Sylvie Pénichon, Tram Vo, Janka Krizanova, and Tomáš Vyhlídal.

The main objectives of the workshop were to:

  • recognise and understand the environmental vulnerabilities and needs of photographic materials
  • be familiar with current research and recent developments relating to collection environments
  • prioritise the environmental needs for photograph collections within institutions
  • communicate with institutional colleagues on environmental priorities and their implementation
  • decide on and perform conservation treatments on these materials if deemed necessary.

The emphasis was on the sustainability of preventive measures, not only in terms of minimising energy usage, but also working within budgetary and resource constraints. Many of the participants work in institutions that do not have climate controlled storage, for reasons that include being in historic buildings that cannot have HVAC or even home air conditioning systems installed, and having limited budgets for conservation activities.

Along those lines, many of the techniques and strategies we investigated over the two weeks involved low-tech, low-budget, low-risk ways of achieving the best results possible.

The workshop was based in a classroom on the first floor of the School of Film and Television Studies, Institute of Art History – next to the river, the room overlooked Prague Castle, and with that view, on very hot days with the windows open (no air conditioning) it could be difficult to concentrate!

Prague castle from the classroom. Photo: Prue McKay

Week 1

Our program for the first week covered indoor climate control and mitigation strategies, and environmental monitoring. We learnt how to calibrate hygrometers using different saturated salt solutions, and were introduced to the Digichart software that can convert thermohygrograph charts into digital data. The importance of dew points in calculating safe conditions for photographs was investigated – did you know that you can determine whether your photograph needs conditioning between one environment and another, based on the dew points of each environment?  We also learnt about the Climate for Culture project (unfortunately limited to Europe, but so interesting) which is investigating the potential impact of climate change on Europe’s historic and the collections they house, and encouraging the development of sustainable strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Week 2

In week two we continued experiments into packaging and microclimates, with different materials and designs being put together to measure their effectiveness in freezer storage, transportation and exhibition. Oxygen scavengers, zeolites and silica gel were all investigated for their effectiveness in microclimates. Two days were spent talking about, looking at and trying to get rid of mould on sample photographic materials of various kinds.

A high point of the workshop was a day trip to several sites to see climate control in action:

  • Czech News Agency photographic archive ­­– this collection, a mixture of photographic prints (mono and colour), transparencies, and negatives on glass, nitrate and acetate, has rooms on the 5th floor of an office building. They are outer rooms and are exposed to extremes of temperature throughout the year, although they have home air conditioners. The archive is slowly being digitised for the Photobank project. As it has no conservation staff, our class later worked up some recommendations for the archive, to assist in preservation of the collection.
  • National Archives of the Czech Republic – we were taken into their photographic storage area, which contains a walk-in cold room, and shown some of the treasures of their collection, including albums of cartes-de-visite, and daguerreotype storage containers developed by their conservators.
  • The Institute of Art History – part of the Academy of Sciences, the Institute has two conservators on site, and is housed in an historic building in the Old Town (Staré Město – the conservation lab has a great view!). It cannot have air conditioning installed as this would damage the building, so a room at the back of the building was chosen for its important photo archive, with as much protection from the environment outside as possible (only one short outer wall). The windows were blocked using foil tape and board, and access to the room is restricted. New furniture was recently fitted so the collection of beautiful historic photographs is well housed. Even without air conditioning, the room was noticeably cooler than the corridor outside and other rooms in the building.
  • The Chapel of the Holy Cross at Karlstejn Castle, about an hour from Prague – founded in 1348 by the Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. The Chapel is on the third floor of a stone tower, and fluctuating environmental conditions (in particular, high humidity) over the centuries led to its priceless collection of panel paintings, as well as the gold wall decoration, to become damaged. Our tutor Tomáš was part of a team that developed and installed an air movement and conditioning system for the chapel, which was what we were ostensibly there to see, but the chapel itself stole the show. Walls lined with solid gold plates, semi-precious stones, and paintings of saints enclose this small room that was built as a place for safekeeping of royal treasures, especially Charles IV’s collection of holy relics and the coronation jewels of the Holy Roman Empire.

I came away from the workshop with a new appreciation for our colleagues who have to improvise and penny-pinch on a daily basis, to look after their much-loved collections. Some of the people I met had real budget limitations, and others lived in countries where the government restricts imports of materials they would like to be able to buy. It is very easy to become complacent about one’s privileges when one works in a big national institution – we complain about a lack of funding but ultimately if we need something, we can usually get it. I also enjoyed revisiting the basics of preventive conservation and going back to look at old problems in new ways. I learnt so much from the instructors and my classmates.

I want to thank the Getty Conservation Institute for the opportunity to attend this special workshop, and the National Archives of Australia for their generous support.