The Arizona State Museum (ASM), located at the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson, has launched an initiative to preserve one of America’s unparalleled collections of anthropological photographic materials. The collection documents 13,000 years of human occupation, ingenuity and artistry in the American Southwest. Current storage and environmental conditions in the museum’s historic buildings put the highly sensitive photographic media under immediate and persistent threat of decay. ASM Photographic Collection Curator, Jannelle Weakly, and Associate Conservator and Head of Operations, Teresa Moreno, joined forces to tackle this pressing preservation challenge and have co-authored several grant applications to support their initiative. Most recently, Weakly and Moreno co-curated an exhibit of ASM photographs to draw attention to the collection, it’s preservation needs, and the museum’s plans to address them.
The earliest photographs in the collection date to the late 1880s and capture the colonial encounter and the acute national interest in the peoples and cultures of the region at a time when the United States was at the height of its westward exploration and expansion. The collection chronicles the work of prominent pioneering scholars and formative excavations and ethnological studies, seminal to the development of the disciplines of American Archaeology and Anthropology. Photographs taken during an early ASM excavation at the Naco mammoth kill site (9500 BCE) show Clovis spear points embedded in fossilized mammoth bones and document early human occupation in the region. Historic and contemporary ethnological photographs illuminate the rich and diverse traditional lifeways of over thirty federally recognized tribes.
ASM’s photographic holdings include more than half a million prints, negatives, and transparencies, and more than 250 movie films that provide visual documentation of the enduring cultures, traditions and technologies of the indigenous peoples of the Southwest from the distant past to the present. The range of photographic media represented in the collection presents a variety of preservation challenges. Glass plate negatives show signs of silvering. Silver gelatin prints have cracking emulsion, surface abrasion, and loss. Photogravures are discolored from attachment to acidic secondary supports. Chromogenic color prints show signs of overall dye fading, and have scratches, fingerprints and surface dust. These are but a few examples of the types of damage present. The primary driver for much of the decay, however, is exposure to unstable and extreme environmental conditions.
In 2018, the national significance of ASM’s collection was recognized when the museum was awarded a Save America’s Treasures (SAT) Grant to support a capital improvement project to create climate-controlled storage for the collection. The SAT award from the National Park Service (NPS), administered by the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS), is coupled with a Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections (SCHC) Implementation Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Division of Preservation and Access, also awarded in 2018. A prior NEH SCHC Planning Grant, awarded in 2014, enabled Weakly and Moreno to partner with preservation environment specialists from the Image Permanence Institute (IPI), energy conservation managers from UA Facilities Management, and architects and engineers from local Tucson firm, GLHN Architects & Engineers, Inc., to develop a schematic design for a multi-climate storage suite with cool, cold and frozen storage conditions.
The ASM exhibit, titled Saving an American Treasure: An Unparalleled Collection of Anthropological Photographs, consists of four different installations over the course of two years and explains ASM’s preservation goals. Photographs selected for the exhibit include widely recognized images and some that are rarely seen. Some photographs were selected because they provide specific examples of physical, chemical or biological decay. The overarching intent of the exhibit being, not only to highlight the outstanding content of the collection, but also to teach and inform visitors about preservation challenges posed by unstable temperature and humidity, the presence of pollutants and dust, and uncontrolled exposure to light, and measures museums can take to mitigate these challenges. In a dedicated show of support for the museum’s goals to both share and preserve the collection, Tru Vue® provided an in-kind donation of 8.8 mm UltraVue® Laminated Glass for the fabrication of exhibit vitrines to display the most vulnerable photographs – yet one more preventive measure to save ASM’s American Treasure.
Watch this video to learn more about American Treasures at Arizona State Museum.
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