The fascinating world of photographic conservation
Jacqueline Moon ACR spoke at the recent ACR Conference in November about how her career has developed, from being a practising artist and community development worker through to her current role as the Senior Conservation Manager for Public and Academic Engagement at The National Archives. She reflected on what inspired her to make the move, and how she worked to develop her skills on the way. Jacqueline was accredited by ICON in 2017.
My first degree was in Fine Art Printmaking, at Glasgow School of Art. After graduating I became a community art worker and a practising artist: I spent a lot of time running around with an orange bucket full of paints, a rucksack of print rollers and a portfolio of paper. I worked with children who had been excluded from school, prisoners on remand and the elderly, but after 12 years I’d started to wish for a less hectic way to earn a living. I’d met a conservator when my mum needed a watercolour restored, and though I’d never been interested in science beyond how to wire a plug I decided to study the conservation of works of art on paper.
After graduating with an MA from Northumbria I came to work at The National Archives, initially in digitisation. Six months later I began to worry about forgetting what I’d learned, so I found a second job in a private conservation studio. This meant an elaborate journey consisting of a 30 minute cycle ride through North London, a 60 minute train journey and then another cycle through fields and over the M11 motorway; but the experience was valuable and I stayed for 18 months.
Jacqueline preparing an infill for a George Cruikshank print in 2007
My background in art soon drew me towards the archives’ collection of visual materials. This includes a series of Victorian and Edwardian photographs dated from the 1850s, collected for copyright registration and depicting almost every aspect of life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Later collections that drew my interest include the panoramic images of Operation Sandstone, a coastal survey carried out in the 1950s as part of a plan to re-take the country if it should ever be invaded.
Results from my experiments on a small sample set were encouraging, and the next stage would therefore be to test a larger historical sample set.
When the opportunity arose I decided to concentrate on photographs; but doing so required more specialist knowledge than I could develop by learning on the job, while I also wanted to see my work from a different perspective. As there are no further education courses in photograph conservation in the UK I applied to study an MRes in Heritage Science at University College London, which meant engaging with broader questions of what heritage science is, how scientific techniques can best be used and how environmental impact can be assessed. When the time came to choose a research topic I decided to study yellowing in silver gelatine photographs, partly because these were the most common photographs of the 20th century and significant numbers are held at The National Archives.
Silver-based black and white photographs are prone to mirroring, yellowing and fading. Experienced photograph conservators can judge the cause of deterioration from the type of yellowing, but I wanted to develop an accurate colour measurement that anyone could use. I investigated this by artificially ageing sample photographs and assessing their differences, and quickly established that the well-processed samples became more yellowed in their mid-tones while those that had been poorly-processed became darker. I went on to test this theory on historical photographs. Results from my experiments on a small sample set were encouraging, and the next stage would therefore be to test a larger historical sample set.
Jacqueline identifying Prussian blue in a very early British film sample
The MRes was a bit of a culture shock. Having studied before at postgraduate level I was expecting to take it in my stride; but though my visual art background meant I was used to talking, listening, making things and reading about art, I had less experience in reading and writing technical scientific articles. I found it challenging to develop the necessary scientific knowledge, and sometimes even to convince myself that I was capable of doing so.
I’ve become much better at problem solving; I look at the type of problem, its scale, how long I have to tackle it and the available options.
But the course also raised lots of positive questions for me. I soon began to ask myself how I could prove the value of cultural heritage by using scientific methods and engage others in my research, what I could learn from other heritage professionals, and how I could achieve maximum impact with my work. I’ve become much better at problem solving; I look at the type of problem, its scale, how long I have to tackle it and the available options. I’ve also learned the value of testing ideas on a small scale and taking time to reflect on the results, and I’m no longer afraid to question what I’m doing or to express myself frankly and concisely.
And it’s certainly proved worthwhile; I’ve just had my first article published by the peer-reviewed online journal Heritage Science. I’m now much clearer on what is expected of an author and more confident in writing for different audiences. There’s a real art to doing this effectively; it can be too easy to fall back on specialist language and to shy away from thinking about what we’re really trying to say. I now encourage and support my colleagues in producing engaging blog posts, articles and podcasts, as I understand the processes involved and believe that this work is hugely valuable.
Jacqueline presenting the work of Collection Care
I also gained a real appreciation of the importance of volunteers in surveying large collections. While working with The National Archives’ photographs during and after my MRes I advertised for ten volunteers to carry out a statistically valid survey. Having met them and discussed the process I planned a series of introductory sessions, both to make sure that they knew what was expected and to help me get to know them. The MRes meant I could explain how to identify different photographic processes and understand their deterioration, as well as interpreting the resulting data with my increased understanding of analytical techniques. One outcome of our survey was the discovery of many loose sheets of film. Our executive team were not aware of this, so in February 2018 I’ll be meeting them to explain the scale of the problem and to outline options for addressing it. I certainly wouldn’t have been as comfortable doing this before the MRes; having to give regular presentations taught me how to explain and justify my working methods effectively and with confidence.
Online communication is helping us share ideas and knowledge with those who can’t attend our events.
After my MRes I wanted to do another research project related to photographs and film. The British Film Institute holds a collection of public information films on the Archives’ behalf, so working with them seemed an obvious choice. I wanted to understand more about cinematic film and its associated terminology, and to assess whether analytical techniques could be used to help with the historical interpretation of early British film. In the summer I applied to showcase the project using the UCL Mobile Heritage Laboratory. I arranged for the laboratory – a self-contained van – to be parked in front of The National Archives, and organised drop-in and bookable sessions for visitors; as there was no precedent for such an event at TNA this posed a number of challenges. Though keen to welcome members of the public I also targeted specific groups, particularly photography and film-making students from local colleges and universities; one student from Kingston University subsequently contributed to an article for Icon news. I hope to interact with these groups more often in future, both to raise awareness of conservation as a career choice and to show budding artists and historians how we can help with the historical interpretation of their materials.
I was inspired to join the Icon Photographic Materials Group committee by a workshop on engaging policymakers. I’m now the group’s chair and have restructured the committee around my plans; this has involved giving individuals specific responsibilities, and will include more regular online communication through blogging and social media, as well as organising two events each year. We’re a small but enthusiastic group, and as chair I take an ambitious yet realistic and well-organised approach. Online communication is helping us share ideas and knowledge with those who can’t attend our events.
Jacqueline talking about film in the Mobile Heritage Laboratory, June 2017
In September 2017 the National Archives took part in Open House London, and I took responsibility for organising the involvement of the Collection Care department. I’d worried that it might be difficult to inspire my colleagues to come into work on a Saturday, but many were very keen to do so. I made posters to hang above their work stations, and they talked to our visitors about a range of projects including the conservation of iconic documents, identifying arsenic in Victorian wallpaper, the digitisation of seal moulds and preparing documents for exhibition. Our visitors filled in an iPad survey before leaving, and we were delighted by the positive feedback that they left; we’re looking forward to planning more events in the future.
Conservation is such a varied profession, and people get into it in all different kinds of ways. Do you have a story? We'd love to hear it! Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Images: Jacqueline Moon ©