CollAsia Focus in 2018: Conserving Photographic and Archival Collections

The CollAsia international course on “Conserving Photographic and Archival Collections” was successfully held in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, from 22 November to 15 December 2018. CollAsia is a training partnership between ICCROM and the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea (CHA) to improve the conservation and use of heritage collections in Southeast Asia. Every year, a course is organized in collaboration with institutions from Member States in the region to address a relevant topic. The courses cover different types of collections and conservation-related skill sets, yet they all promote critical thinking, scientific literacy, applied research, local solutions, and interdisciplinary, value-based, people-centred approaches. Cross-fertilization and synergism within and beyond Southeast Asia are achieved through the participation of heritage professionals from different countries in the region and other parts of the world.

The CollAsia 2018 course explored the “why”, “what” and “how” behind conservation decisions related to photographic and archival collections. A group of 30 professionals, participants and teachers from 19 countries spent three weeks addressing these questions, learning together and from each other’s professional experience. Their institutions included archives, museums, libraries and universities, while their professional roles ranged from conservators to curators, archivists, librarians, and professors. This diversity allowed the group to look at photographic and archival collections from different perspectives, acknowledging common and specific challenges related to their conservation and use in different contexts. It also ensured that nothing was taken for granted, starting from apparently simple questions, uncovering together the complexity and the beauty of conservation principles and interpretations.  

CollAsia Focus in 2018: Conserving Photographic and Archival Collections

The course addressed the increasing regional and worldwide demand for training on conservation of photographs and archival materials. The exponential growth of photographic collections, in their number, dimensions and geographical distribution, continues from the early 20th century at a much faster rate than any other object type. Photographs also present particular characteristics that make them a stimulating topic for the development of conservation theory and practice. They have a multi-layered aesthetical and material identity, bridging art and science, blurring the traditional border between fake and authentic, with the implicit aim to “archive” life. As stated by Susan Sontag, “to collect photographs is to collect the world (…); but with still photographs the image is also an object, light-weight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store.”  With the advent of digital photography, conservation challenges are becoming ever more complex and pressing, requiring new knowledge, skills, and approaches. Archival collections, in turn, are made of a wide variety of materials besides photographs, including film, digital records, magnetic media, books, paper documents, artefacts/memorabilia, herbaria, etc.    

The course further aimed to build a shared understanding of the main conservation challenges of photographic and archival collections. Their diversity and complexity raise major issues in managing quantity and quality, while guaranteeing preservation and access. Just like museums, archives in the 21st century are expanding their functions, trying to reach a wider public, and strengthening their role in contemporary societies. “Archiving services are required by law, moreover, to pass on archival documents to future generations in good, well-ordered and accessible condition. To what extent an object can be accessed is closely connected to how damaged the documents are” .

Preserving photographic and archival collections in hot and humid climates, and fast changing societies such as those in Southeast Asia, is not straightforward. Many of the constituent materials are intrinsically unstable (e.g. early synthetic dyes, acidic paper, cellulose nitrate/acetate), which implies faster deterioration rates. Often times their significance is not fully articulated or recognized, which can lead to dissociation. Furthermore, issues like hardware and software obsolescence, file formats, metadata, and copyright pose major challenges for the preservation of digital collections.

CollAsia Focus in 2018: Conserving Photographic and Archival Collections

The interactive learning modalities, including group work, hands-on sessions, games, formal lectures, demonstrations, and study visits to local communities and institutions, formed a rich and diverse daily schedule throughout the course programme. Each day was focussed on a broader topic or question, developed into four sessions.  

The first part of the course was dedicated to explore the material composition of collection items, their production techniques, and values. Issues related to documentation and specific preservation strategies, with particular attention to traditional photographs, were also discussed.

What is a photograph? Core questions like this were used as the starting point of course sessions to address relevant conservation-related issues. In this particular case, participants were asked to write their own definitions, and then presented with a selection of pictures and asked to differentiate between true photographs and printed images. Observations could be made with the naked eye, and using low-cost equipment such as small portable microscopes or magnifiers lens for mobile phones. Subsequently, participants engaged directly with the photographic process, learning how to make their own photographs using cyanotype and salt print processes. Understanding photographic processes through empirical experience not only enabled content assimilation while having fun and overcoming language barriers, but also allowed appreciation of the intrinsic value of the photographic technique, its beauty and history.  

The values and significance attributed by different stakeholders to photographs, archival, and other heritage items were analyzed through the lens of their ‘biographies’, i.e., how value assessments and interpretations of these items change over the course of time or among different individuals or groups, and how these affect preservation decisions and strategies. The importance of using local, cost-effective, sustainable and creative solutions for the implementation of such decisions and strategies was stressed, taking into account the diversity of contexts in which heritage items exist.  

The second part of the course moved from the perspective on single objects or specific materials to a broader view on collection management issues. Among these, particular attention was given to risk management, integration of preservation and access, and digital collections management. The latter turned out to be a significant emerging issue and one of the most challenging topics for the participants, who immediately recognized the urgency for more research and training to respond to the complex and increasing needs posed by digital preservation. Discussions on institutional mandates and accessibility of collections highlighted the importance of developing preservation strategies that integrated and enhanced the meaningful use of the collections, and the need to build new knowledge together through interdisciplinary, collaborative research.

Additional learning opportunities were offered by course study visits, which provided concrete and context-specific examples of the challenges and approaches to conserving archival and photographic collections. For example, a half-day practical session on risk management for heritage collections was carried out at the Museum and Library of Vietnamese History in Ho Chi Minh City. Participants worked in the museum galleries and library storage areas to assess risks to the collections through observations and interviews with the staff, and then discussed feasible measures to mitigate priority risks. Specific on-site conditions (i.e. non-classroom settings), language barriers while interviewing the staff, and the short time allotted to complete the exercise showed the real difficulties of carrying out effective risk assessment in an unknown physical and institutional environment. At the same time, participants experienced how a collaborative spirit amongst themselves and with the local institution can bring about positive and creative outcomes. In another visit to the National Archives of Viet Nam, participants worked in groups to carry out a detailed condition assessment of different collections.  They then developed and presented a preservation plan to the institution.

Towards the end of the course, a former participant of ICCROM’s CollAsia and First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis (FAC) courses led a session on disaster preparedness and response for heritage collections. The exercise involved a post-flood scenario simulation, in which participants had to carry out situation analysis, damage and risk assessment, and salvage of affected items.  For the simulation they used objects from the course didactic collection, including photographs, CDs, magazines, books, small ceramics, and baskets. Participants played different roles during the exercise, such as journalists, heritage specialists, volunteers, institution directors, and so on. The exercise highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary and intersectoral cooperation, and the need for specific and sustainable strategies in disaster risk management.

The Ho Chi Mihn City University of Culture’s commitment and close collaboration to host and organize the course activities was crucial. The university context provided an energizing environment, where students and staff members were eager to meet the international heritage professionals participating in the course, to learn about ICCROM activities, and to help with the course implementation. As a spin-off activity, the University of Culture organized an International Conference on International Integration of Conservation - Opportunities and Challenges for Cultural Heritage Values, in partnership with the Vietnamese Southern Institute of Social Sciences, and the Ho Chi Mihn City Institute for Development Studies, under the patronage of ICCROM. The conference provided a fruitful platform to learn about current issues and initiatives concerning the Vietnamese heritage, and to strengthen the regional network.

Partnership is key for CollAsia and all other activities of ICCROM. Stronger collaboration across borders and disciplines can alleviate many of the problems attributed to a lack of resources, expertise or technology. Professionals’ perspectives and skills can be expanded in a meaningful way through institutional cooperation like in the one established for the implementation of this course.  

Sharing is the key word that can take us towards more effective professional practices. Jointly developing our research and analytic skills, and exploring different working modalities learnt from collaborating with other colleagues, can make the difference in our approach to conservation. The more we face new situations, the more we become aware of and willing to share what we do. The more we are aware of the incredible value and richness of our professional diversity, the more our collections will be effectively conserved and used to make a stronger positive impact on our societies.  

Member States represented: Brazil, Cambodia, France, Italy, Republic of Korea, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Malawi, Myanmar, Philippines, Spain, Tanzania, Thailand, United Kingdom, Vietnam, Zimbabwe

Non Member States: Fiji, Indonesia, Singapore