An important part of the Disclosing Architecture programme is the registration, conservation, digitisation and, where necessary, restoration of an estimated 300,000 photographs and photomechanical prints from the collection. The Foundation for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (SBMK) has brought together 16 museums, including Het Nieuwe Instituut, for Collection Knowledge 2.0/Photography, which aims to preserve photography permanently and keep it publicly accessible. The knowledge this project generates is essential for Het Nieuwe Instituut to optimally register and conserve its photography collection in the context of Disclosing Architecture.
Photographs are extremely fragile objects because they are sensitive to environmental factors such as light, temperature and humidity. As well as minimising physical use through digitisation, using suitable materials, packaging and storage also improve their lifespan. Considerable knowledge about early photography is already available, also within the institute. Therefore, Collection Knowledge 2.0/Photography specifically focuses on knowledge of modern photography and its photographic processes.
In July 2021, as part of Collection Knowledge 2.0/Photography, two Het Nieuwe Instituut employees attended a workshop, held over several days, for determining modern photographic techniques. Together with other participants, the knowledge gained during the Practical Days was put into practice by identifying photographs from Het Nieuwe Instituut’s collection.
In preparation for the Days of Practice, a selection of contemporary photography was made from the archives for use by the workshop participants. The sample represented various materials and processes and addressed different conservation challenges that Het Nieuwe Instituut faces, including photographs mounted on panels together with other materials, or photographs with traces of previous restoration.
Photographs bearing traces of use, such as stickers and notes, that reveal something about the context in which the object was made or collected by the archive’s creator, or how it functioned in architectural practice, are also interesting and typical of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s collection. Though one does not want to erase such traces, they demand specific conservation requirements.
Exposed to light
Determining technique is essential because it allows for the correct conservation measures to be taken. In addition, the workshop also provided tools for monitoring objects when exposed to light, such as when photographs are included in exhibitions. Before a photograph can be loaned, a condition report is prepared to ascertain the imposition of requirements regarding the intensity and duration of its exposure to light. For example, we now know that a silver dye-bleach print can withstand more LUX hours than a dye diffusion transfer print.
One of the most surprising findings has been that an object’s age does not necessarily dictate its fragility. Modern colour photography involves processes that are inherently less stable and can discolour or fade faster than some black-and-white photographs that are much older.
Besides the value of recognising the technology, it is also important to assign it the correct, at least unambiguous, name. For example, different institutions and collections use terms derived from brand names, or other terms are used for one technique and vice versa. Polaroid, for example, is a brand name and not a technology, and the company produced materials/film using several techniques. Its silver or dye diffusion transfer print, popularly known as ‘peel-apart film’, differs from their internal dye diffusion transfer print, or ‘integral pack’. Putting two different techniques under one name is confusing.
In one of the working groups of Collection Knowledge 2.0/Photography, various institutional representatives have compiled a glossary of preferred terminology. Het Nieuwe Instituut is taking part in a different working group within the project. Together with the other participants, the institute is investigating the best way to implement this terminology in the various collections’ registration systems and working processes.
Disclosing Architecture is a six-year programme designed to improve the visibility and accessibility of the architecture collection, made possible by a one-off investment from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW). The programme includes the registration, digitisation, conservation and, if necessary, restoration of all photographic prints in the archives. The material and technical condition of the photographs is being further investigated, and work is underway to formulate essential criteria for restoration. We have also initiated a project to identify the photographs’ copyright status.
Collection Knowledge 2.0/Photography
SBMK, together with UvA and RCE, is coordinating Collection Knowledge 2.0/ Photography (2020–23). Sixteen institutions with photographic collections are project partners. More information about the project, partners and project staff is on the SBMK website.
Het Nieuwe Instituut Participates in Photography Conservation Project
To expand our understanding of photographic processes and the conservation of modern photography, Het Nieuwe Instituut is participating in Collection Knowledge 2.0 – Photography, a partnership between institutions with photography collections, led by the Foundation for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (SBMK) and the University of Amsterdam (UvA). A series of identification days will take place in Het Nieuwe Instituut from 1 to 9 July.
From Scanner to Digilab: Digitisation Gets More Professional
Het Nieuwe Instituut has been working on digitising the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning for more than ten years. That process has now undergone considerable professionalisation and acceleration as part of the six-year Disclosing Architecture programme, which focuses on preserving the collection and making it more visible. Digitisation is the starting point and prerequisite for numerous projects designed to make the architecture collection more visible and accessible.