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‘Images to be treasured’

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UD art conservation students work to restore photos damaged in fire, explosion

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​Students in the internationally recognized Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation have helped an Ohio family repair and clean photographs damaged during a deadly fire in 2021. ​

When Angel Miller first saw the scattered photographs and family albums that had survived the tragic explosion and fire at her parents’ house, her heart sank.

The propane gas leak in July 2021 had killed her 70-year-old mother, severely injured her father and destroyed the couple’s home in New Holland, Ohio. When friends and neighbors brought her the photographs recovered from the site, their damaged condition was yet another blow. Most of the vacation and holiday images, school portraits and snapshots of older generations were covered with soot and grime, many were stuck together with their once-glossy finish bubbled and distorted from exposure to heat and water, and the two photo albums were charred and unable even to be opened.​

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​“In a split second,” Angel Miller says, her parents’ home went from looking as it did on the left to looking like it did on the right after the propane gas explosion and fire.​

“It broke my heart to see them that way,” Miller said. “Mom and I always loved photos and loved taking photos, too. … I am forever grateful for the more recent photos that are saved in my phone, [but] our family had so many photographs over the years that were completely lost, so it was very emotional.”

But now, Miller and her father are hopeful that many of the damaged photos they were able to salvage from the leveled house might be preserved thanks to work being done in the University of Delaware’s Department of Art Conservation. Working under the direction of faculty members, and with assistance from an undergraduate conservation class and a recent alumna, graduate student Ashley Stanford has taken on the project of treating the Millers’ photographs.

“The damage is serious, and the photographs are fragile, but I think we can treat most of them,” said Stanford, a second-year master’s degree student in the internationally recognized Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). “They won’t all be perfect, but I do think we can work with most of them.”​

The goal, according to the formal treatment plan that Stanford developed, is to clean and stabilize the photographs — using various tools and scientifically tested methods to remove them from albums, unblock them from each other, and preserve as much as possible — to prevent further deterioration. In that way, it will be possible for the photographs to be more safely handled and digitized for the family’s use, Stanford said.

Angel Miller learned about UD’s art conservation work from news coverage of another tragedy. A family who lived not far from the Millers lost three young children in a house fire in 2015, and WUDPAC students worked to restore their damaged photographs. After a friend in her close community sent her an article about that project, Miller reached out to Debra Hess Norris, who is Unidel Henry Francis DuPont Chair of Fine Arts, professor of photograph conservation and director of WUDPAC. (Norris was named interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences on May 31, 2023.)​

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This photograph was damaged in the fire. ​

Norris, a renowned expert in photograph conservation, wanted to help. She saw restoring the photographs as an opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience while helping the Miller family regain some of their mementoes from happier times. The painstaking work of cleaning and stabilizing photographs provides a real service, she said.

“It is a privilege for our art conservation students, both graduates and undergraduates, to share their remarkable skills, knowledge and sustained commitment to public service as they assist with the recovery of these photographs,” Norris said. “Their careful and meticulous work will reveal images to be treasured.”

Stanford also saw the project as an opportunity for herself and other students as well as an important service to a family that had been through such difficult times and lost so many photographs that had great sentimental value. In WUDPAC, she is majoring in photograph conservation with an interest in emergency response and recovery for cultural institutions.

“I always loved photography — the artistry and the psychology of it,” she said. “I feel like everyone has a connection with photographs.”

Stanford said she was excited to bring the Millers’ photographs to the eight undergraduates taking the Preservation Internship class, which during the 2023 spring semester focused on photograph conservation. UD is one of a small number of institutions that offer an undergraduate major in art conservation, where hands-on experience working with objects is an essential part of the curriculum.​

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The same photograph, as shown earlier, was in better shape after restoration.​

During a recent class meeting, the students gathered in a work room on campus, with Stanford and Morrigan Kelley, an alumna of the undergraduate program, overseeing their work. The first step of the treatment process for the 200-some photographs that were not in albums was cleaning, and the team began working with soft brushes, tiny cosmetic sponges and swabs dampened with water and alcohol to gently remove dirt and soot.

The photographs included color and black-and-white prints as well as a few Polaroids. Their ages and sizes varied, but the subject matter resonated with the students — everyday images of families gathered at a Christmas tree, children in typical school-photo poses, grandparents holding babies, parents and youngsters on vacation or just relaxing together.

“It's very daunting to be working with materials such as these damaged photos because I don’t want to make mistakes, knowing the significance of the images,” said Kristyn Williams, a second-year art conservation major with a minor in museum studies. “However, all of this makes it even more rewarding when we are able to clean and fix these images. Seeing the grime come off an image as it is being cleaned is super satisfying, especially knowing the story behind them and why we are preserving them.”

Other students also called the cleaning process fulfilling and rewarding, particularly in light of the Millers’ history.

“I think working on important things like someone's photos has a major impact,” said Corinne Samanic, also an art conservation major. She said she hoped the project would give the Millers a sense of “relief that they still have these treasures and that they didn't lose everything in that fire.”

When Angel Miller heard from Norris and Stanford, she expressed the same thought: “My dad and I are so relieved to hear there is hope to preserve many of our photographs.” She described some of the images she was especially concerned about, including possible photographs in one of the albums of her two siblings who had died in infancy of a rare muscle disease. She also thought about the many photographs that had been taken of her parents, Ted and Patricia, enjoying time together during their 51 years of marriage, and of their close family.

One photograph had a remarkable journey even before arriving at UD; depicting Ted and Patti Miller trail-riding during a visit to Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Tennessee, the print was blown by the force of the explosion across a field and a creek in the Millers’ rural community. A neighbor found and returned the damaged photo to them.​

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Student David Rand (left) works to repair a photo with program leader Debra Hess Norris looking on. ​

A few other surviving images and mementoes were also thrown some distance in the blast and are among those now at UD. They include photos of Angel Miller’s grandparents, dating from about 1940 and earlier, and Patti Miller’s 8-by-10 graduation photo. Far from the house, neighbors also recovered Patti Miller’s high school diploma and a newspaper clipping of her and Ted Miller’s 1970 wedding announcement.

Ted Miller was hospitalized with burns and other injuries after the fire. He and the family dog, who ran two miles away in panic from the explosion that day, now live with Angel Miller, whose home was next door to her parents. The family, she said, has always been close, and after her parents bought adjoining parcels of farmland about 30 years ago for what they expected would be their last home, they gave one plot to her.

Stanford is continuing to treat the loose photographs and to work with the albums, which were significantly damaged. When all the photographs are restored and stabilized as much as possible, they will be placed in archival quality materials.

Norris sees these kinds of projects as a tangible way to help people through difficult times: “In preserving these memories, the practice of art conservation has the capacity to heal,” she said.​

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More about the family and the explosion

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Miller family parents: Patti and Ted Miller were married 51 years before Patti died at age 70 in the explosion ​

Ted Miller had always wanted to live in the country, his daughter said, and around 1989 he and his wife were able to buy 11 acres of farmland and build a house they planned to live in through retirement and for the rest of their lives.

He bred Appaloosa mules and for a time had a pair of mules that would pull a buggy and a covered wagon that he and his father built together. The Millers loved to take the buggy out for rides in the country, often attracting plenty of attention and amateur photographers.

When the explosion happened around 7:30 one morning, Ted Miller was blown some 40 feet from the recliner where he had been sitting. Patti Miller was killed by the blast, and the devastation was so great that first responders weren’t initially able to even visualize the home’s floorplan.

“I knew that layout, and I even had a time figuring out what was left that didn’t completely burn,” Angel Miller said. “Large items – like a king-size bed, piano, filing cabinets, even Dad’s CB equipment – just burned beyond recognition. Windows had blown across the road. The front porch had collapsed. … It’s probably an exaggeration, but to me it looked similar to a war zone.”

With Ted Miller hospitalized and Angel Miller having limited mobility because of recent (unrelated) surgery herself, the family’s neighbors, friends and church community rallied, making frequent visits to sift through the wreckage and return anything they could find to the Millers.

Patricia Ann (Patti) Miller was 70 years old and planning her retirement at the time of the tragedy. She had most recently worked for 24 years as a respected administrative support officer with the Franklin County Municipal Court Probation Department. She was known in the community as a Sunday school teacher and a loving wife and mother.

“Mom, Dad and I were a very close-knit family of three,” Angel Miller said recently when asked how she and her father were doing. “We both miss Mom every single day.”​

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​ Article by Ann Manser , photo by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Angel Miller and Ashley Stanford 

Published June 01, 2023​

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UD art conservation students work to restore photos damaged in fire, explosion
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