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Tuesday, May 17 • 10:00am - 10:30am
(Photographic Materials) Salvaging Memories: The Recovery of Fire-Damaged Photographs and Lessons Learned in Conservation and Kindness

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With the start of our two-week January 2015 Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation Photograph Conservation Block, first-year Fellows and many other committed students, faculty, staff, and volunteers began the intense recovery of a collection of 260 family photographs. These images were miraculously salvaged from a catastrophic fire on Christmas Day in Ohio that tragically killed a loving grandmother, Terry Harris, and her three beautiful grandchildren – all boys – 9, 11, and 14 years old. The children’s father, Ricky Harris, was a close high-school friend of our Preservation Studies doctoral student, Michael Emmons. Michael sought advice on how to salvage the recovered photographs. Given the photograph block timing, it seemed perfect to offer our assistance to clean, flatten, and rehouse the heavily-damaged images, preparing them for scanning at a later date where possible. Michael worked with us closely providing valued context. These silver gelatin developing-out, chromogenic, and dye diffusion photographs capturing generations of the Harris family ranged in size; all suffered from fire and water damage and many were in poor condition, badly burned or melted. Accumulated layers of grime, debris, soot, and other particulates combined with flaking or blistered gelatin binder layers required careful treatment strategies, including the use of dry and wet methods such as cosmetic, PVOH, and soot sponges; erasers; and ethanol. During treatment photographs were housed with natural zeolites, blotters, and other absorbent materials to minimize odor. Photographs were distorted and blocked; humidification and flattening of resin-coated papers was challenging, especially given our 16-day time frame and the need to complete the entire photograph conservation block curriculum simultaneously. Innovations in treatment were introduced and all procedures were carefully charted on flip-chart pads to ensure consistency. Our story was picked up by the Associated Press; coverage was global and continues. Indeed, this project offered many lessons in advocacy and public communications as our students answered questions from reporters and shared their skills with camera crews. While clearly burned, distorted, and dirty, these photographs were preserved; the Harris’s gratitude for our work was heartfelt and profound. This recovery educated, transformed, and inspired all who contributed their time, talent, and expertise. In many ways, it exemplified the skill and humanity of art conservation. As a profession, we must find ways to share our skills and knowledge broadly, to be a visible presence following unthinkable tragedy, and a known resource for families facing the potential loss of their treasured photographs.

avatar for Debbie Hess Norris-[Fellow]

Debbie Hess Norris-[Fellow]

Chair/Professor, Department of Art Conservation, University of Delaware
Debra Hess Norris is Chair of the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware, and Professor of Photograph Conservation. She graduated magna cum laude with an interdisciplinary BA degree in chemistry, art history, and studio art (1977) and MS in conservation (1980) from... Read More →

Tuesday May 17, 2016 10:00am - 10:30am EDT
Room 516 CD