Art or Archive?

“The Mundaneum’s photographic heritage put to the test of time”

By Mundaneum

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.

                                                                      

                                                                       Raphaèle Cornille









                                                                       Conservator

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?

 

 

                                                                         Patrick Tombelle













                                                                         Photographer

[Gelatine Dry-plate], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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[Girls in the countryside], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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[Negatives on Plastic Film], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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Two
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

[Photography of Saint in church], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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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

[Peasant in a field], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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[Peasant in a field], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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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!

[House in the mountain], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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Two negatives stuck together

[Landscapes], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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[Village], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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Front and back of a negative

[Village], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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Various visible signs of deterioration: mirroring, physical deformation, gelatin bubbling

[Negatives on Plastic Film], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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All the negatives contained in this box have suffered physical damage

[Negatives on Plastic Film], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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Even if the photography is very artistic, the deterioration is irreversible

[Landscapes], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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Structural modifications in the gelatin are very common if photographs are not preserved correctly

[Landscapes], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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The photographic emulsion forms "bubbles"...

[Landscapes], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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...and can completely break away from its plastic support if no action is taken to save it

[Landscapes], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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[Landscapes], From the collection of: Mundaneum
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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

Credits: Story

Rôle—Raphaèle Cornille, Conservator of Iconographic Collections

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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