Arctic explorers in
the 19th century ventured north with the provisions necessary not only
to survive but also to document their journeys, often accompanied by
sketch artists, painters and photographers.
Today, a large collection of photographs taken during those polar expeditions is housed at The Explorers Club,
an international professional society founded in 1904 and headquartered
in New York City. And thanks to University of Delaware art conservation
students, nearly 1,000 of the club’s images have now been cleaned,
stabilized and prepared for digitization, for use by researchers and
Eight boxes of albums, filled with photographs from the 1860s to the
1890s, arrived at Winterthur Museum early this month, where 10 graduate
students in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) spent two weeks working intensively with the collection.
“These albums are one-of-a-kind and were assembled by Albert Operti,
who was known as the ‘Artist of the Arctic,’” said Debra Hess Norris,
Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts, chair of the Department
of Art Conservation and an expert in photograph conservation, who
supervised the students.
“I’m grateful to The Explorers Club for entrusting us with something that has such significance as a cultural treasure.”
The photographs, taken during various expeditions by Operti and many
other photographers, depict all aspects of exploration. There are images
of ships, sled dogs and walrus hunts, imposing views of glaciers and
dangerous terrain, group photos of crew members—some who would survive
the adventure and some who would perish—and portraits of native people.
Expeditions included explorer Robert Peary, who claimed to be the
first person to reach the North Pole, and pioneering painter and
photographer William Bradford.
As the students worked with the images, they said they first had to
identify the type of photographic process used in order to determine the
best way to clean the surface. The expedition photographers, working
with what was still a relatively new technology, used a variety of
techniques, so students had a range of hands-on experience.
“It’s important to look at an album page or a photograph as an
object, but it’s also important to consider the subject matter to put it
in context,” said Keara Teeter. Like others working with the project,
she is a first-year student in the three-year WUCPAC program.
Most of the photographs needed to be cleaned, and the edges of some
of the album pages to which they were attached were brittle and in need
of repair. The students documented the work they did, and the album
pages were then stored in polyester sleeves to be returned to the
“We think these photographs were always in albums, and stored out of
the light for a long time, so they’re in good shape,” student Emily
Farek said. “Once they’re digitized, that will cut down on the amount
they’re handled in the future, so that will be even better for them.”
Students marveled at the photographers’ ability to be artistic while also documenting history in the harsh Arctic environment.
“It’s just incredible to see some of these images and imagine what it
was like to go exploring and to live through something like that,” said
student Nicholas Kaplan.
For the Explorers Club, the project was a great opportunity to get
needed assistance with preparing the collection for digitization and to
provide practical experience to future conservators, said Lacey Flint,
the club’s archivist and curator.
“The students really took on a huge task, and the work they did is
incredible,” Flint said. “The ability to have this work preserved, with
its intrinsic historic value, is amazing, and we’re so grateful to
Debbie [Norris] and the students for doing this.”
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape