As part of its role as an archive centre, the Mundaneum houses a large photography collection. “Art or Archive?” is the fruit of an encounter between a photographer and an archivist who decided to join forces to preserve this heritage. In our image-obsessed society, greatly bolstered by smartphones and tablets, it is quite ironic that we are so little concerned with the conservation of photographs, despite our awareness of their fragility. Nonetheless, the management of such a collection gives rise to numerous questions about how the various supports should be preserved, as they each come with their own unique physical and chemical characteristics. Environmental stability is essential to their longevity: temperatures that are too high and a relative humidity level that is too low can both cause irreversible damage. This year, on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of photography, the Mundaneum is celebrating by paying tribute to the 8th art form through this cross-disciplinary perspective on its collections.
A stack of old photographic plates is like a time machine. Snapshot after snapshot, the deep strata double up as interactive layers of time, whose composite image has all the characteristics of a true artistic creation destined for the picture rails of a museum. Aside from this purely aesthetic experience, however, another question arises with regard to these plates. What are these marks, which take on the appearance of a real, menacing tyrannosaurus head?
How is it that the face of the Madonna, meant to be admired, now appears to be hidden behind the folds of a double curtain?
negatives stuck to each other, forming a new photographic image The
two negatives were separated. The damage is irreversible
The bird that seems to be swooping down on the young girls is the result of gelatin migration from one photograph to another
Curled up photograph due to an insufficient humidity level
Temperature and humidity level are the most important factors in guaranteeing the preservation of photographs.
The following examples show the deterioration caused by dramatic variations in these factors, including often irreversible physical and chemical distortions.
In some cases, digitisation may help in the conservation of this heritage, but quite often these documents are lost forever
Document before treatment Document after mould removal treatment
If you take a humid atmosphere and add high temperatures and dust, you get the perfect environment for the development of mould and mildew!
Two negatives stuck together
Front and back of a negative
Various visible signs of deterioration: mirroring, physical deformation, gelatin bubbling
All the negatives contained in this box have suffered physical damage
Even if the photography is very artistic, the deterioration is irreversible
Structural modifications in the gelatin are very common if photographs are not preserved correctly
The photographic emulsion forms "bubbles"...
...and can completely break away from its plastic support if no action is taken to save it
Example of a document salvaged by digitisation. Even though the original negative was severely damaged, the result after digitisation is astoundingly clear
A chemical process or a masterpiece of time?
Though the result may take on an aesthetic and even poetic form, a more disturbing reality lies under the surface, begging the question: will we be able to protect and preserve this heritage, which, through the fault of simple negligence or a dilatory attitude, is in danger of disappearing forever? Since 2010, the Mundaneum has put a preventive conservation plan in place for its photographic collections, by way of specialised training sessions and the purchasing of conservation materials.
“Art or Archive?” is a travelling exhibition which will be presented in different locations, both in Belgium and abroad
Rôle—Raphaèle Cornille, Conservator of Iconographic Collections