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Art conservation students stabilize historic photographs of explorers

​Debra Hess Norris (right) and art conservation graduate students discuss the best way to clean a collection of photographs taken in the late 1800s during expeditions to the Arctic.

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 scholars.

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 Explorers Club.

“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

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UD art conservation students worked to clean and stabilize a large collection of 19th century photographs of Arctic expeditions housed at The Explorers Club of New York.
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