Over the last several months, we have been working to recover and preserve a collection of photographs and related material damaged in hurricane Sandy in October of 2012. The material was promptly frozen after the storm and transferred with the aid of dry ice to our Housatonic, MA location. Bit by bit, the material has been thawed, washed, and rehoused in manageable batches by members of our staff.
We began with the most straightforward material, washing and drying negatives and prints that were in good condition and, though wet, were otherwise undamaged by the flood thanks to the quick action of the collections manager. This material was cataloged and well documented by the archive, and retaining the information from the original water damaged envelopes and housings was, though laborious, relatively simple to do.
After finishing the recovery of the well organized material, we then faced the daunting task of recovering the “mixed bag” of material. This material had not yet been as rigorously cataloged or organized, and a variety of media had been frozen together (a necessary measure given the extreme circumstances). Approaching this material, the benefits of a multidisciplinary studio quickly came to light. By having staff experienced in collections management, preservation, conservation, and digitization, we were able to pull from a range of experience to find a number of creative solutions to difficult problems.
Labelled slides in polyester sleeves were one example from the “mixed bag” that required special treatment. The mounts of the slides were badly damaged by the water, causing colorant in the slide adhesive to migrate and the adhesive to partially dissolve. Furthermore, the printing on the labels, while still legible in their frozen stage, rapidly disintegrated as soon as any handling, thawing, or washing occurred. While it was not necessary to preserve the mounts, it was necessary to preserve the information from the labels and to return it to the preserved slides after they had been washed, dried, and remounted. Since we don’t have a walk-in freezer in which to catalog the images and transfer the label information, we needed a way to both record the information and to match it back up with the correct image later on. We decided to make high resolution images of the slide pages while they were still frozen. This required using a 39 MP camera (a scanner would be too slow and the slides would start to thaw) and a combination of transmitted and reflective lighting so that both the labels and the images would be legible.
Another piece requiring extra attention and fast thinking in the “mixed bag” was a Polaroid photograph that was found frozen among a group of color snapshots. While the chromogenic prints responded as expected to our routine of washing and drying, the Polaroid was furrowed and almost entirely separated from it’s base. The emulsion was removed from the base so that the pellicle could be flattened using a similar method as what we use for deteriorated acetate negative recovery, but using an opaque sheet of white plastic rather than glass as the work surface so that scans could be made throughout the process. If the process hadn’t worked, we would at least have a digital record of the stages of the attempted recovery, allowing us to digitally restore the image if necessary. However, the recovery attempt was fairly successful. After the flattened image was digitized, it was dried in contact with a sheet of fiber based, processed, photo paper. The gelatin on the paper adhered to the image pellicle, giving it a new support that would closely resemble it’s old support. While the image did retain some staining and traces from the furrowing, an object that could have been written off as completely destroyed was saved both in digital and physical form.
Keeping all of the levels of information from the boxes, sleeves, and envelopes with the images and transferring it onto new, undamaged housings was no small feat either. This is when experience in collections management becomes very valuable. A disaster like a flood doesn’t allow for much time to carefully sort through, organize, and compile records for all of the outgoing material. While a lot of effort went into the wet recovery phase of the physical materials, an almost equal amount was devoted to organizing and retaining information in the form of sorting/organizing, relabeling, and rehousing the entire collection in archival enclosures.