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Debra Hess Norris, the Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine
Arts, is the 2018 recipient of the Francis Alison Faculty Award, recognizing her accomplishments as a teacher and a scholar.
Dont put grandma in the attic.
This request applies to your flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional
grandma, of course. But when University of Delaware Professor Debra Hess
Norris makes that the title of one of her workshops, she is referring
to the grandma in your photographs. Dont put her in the attic, where
heat, humidity, heavy boxes, squirrels and other perils will threaten
These are words of wisdom from the Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair
in Fine Arts, a world-renowned expert in photograph preservation and
conservation whose counsel and assistance are requested often by some of
the greatest museums on the planet. But even more, these are words that
express her devotion to people wherever she encounters them and the
things they treasure.
Norris has helped to safeguard a wide array of important materials,
from glass plate negatives documenting Western exploration, platinum
photographs by Gertrude K??sebier, Polaroid portraits by Andy Warhol and
at-risk collections in museums, libraries, archives and historic sites
worldwide, even an early photographic album of The Beatles, of whom she
is as zealous a devotee as any on record. But she is just as committed
to treating the charred, water-damaged photographs brought to her from a family that had lost three young boys and their grandmother in a house fire in rural Ohio.
For her global influence, her ability to inspire excellence in
student conservators and her commitment to the ideals of the University
of Delaware, which she has served as professor, department chair, vice
provost and now trustee since joining the faculty in 1982, Norris has
been named the 2018 winner of the Francis Alison Faculty Award, the
Universitys highest competitive honor for faculty.
Simply put, Norris impact on the field and in training the future
generations of conservators is stunning, said George Watson, dean of
the College of Arts and Sciences, in his letter of nomination.
earned her bachelors and masters degrees at UD, studying art history,
studio art, chemistry and art conservation, then invested her skill and
passion in developing, training and nurturing a worldwide cadre of
She has been a forceful advocate for the necessity of ethical
consideration in all works of conservation, asking students and
colleagues to search for personal or institutional biases that may color
the work and distort the historic record. She sees honest, respectful
collaboration as key to recognizing and addressing such blind spots.
How do we bring people from all cultures into the conversation in
developing best practices for the care of their own cultural material?
Debbie is at the forefront of these conversations, Adrienne Lundgren, a
former student of Norris who now is senior photograph conservator at
the Library of Congress, wrote in a letter of endorsement.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
William Bro Adams visits a conservation lab at Winterthur Museum in 2016 to have a
look at the graduate Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art
Conservation that Norris directs there.
This commitment to respect for other cultures and integrity in those
relationships is part of Norris lasting legacy in the field, many said,
and one of many reasons she is a trusted partner around the world.
She is the go-to resource for training in our field, with
curricula developed for students at all stages (from undergraduate to
postdoctoral) and for practicing professionals at all levels of
knowledge and achievement, wrote Paul Messier of the Yale Institute for
the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.
William Bro Adams, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities,
said he learned early in his tenure at the NEH that Norris was
considered the leading authority on art conservation in the United
States. That prompted him to visit the program directed by Norris that
links the conservation work of the University with that of Winterthur Museum.
The technical sophistication of the work was compelling, but I
was especially struck by the quality of Professor Norris relationship
with her students and by their enthusiasm for the work, he wrote. It
was not hard to see why the program at Delaware
is widely regarded as the best in the country, and it was not hard to
see why Professor Norris is held in such high regard as its leader.
When he consulted with Norris to find meaningful ways for the United States to strengthen cultural ties with Cuba, she went to the experts in Cuba to see what would be meaningful to them. New partnerships and projects emerged.
Professor Norris led a delegation of Delaware graduate students and
faculty to Cuba to learn about the preservation challenges the Cubans
face with respect to their extraordinary art collections, including
especially the remarkable photographic records of Cuban culture held by
various cultural institutions in Havana, he wrote.
Letters describing Norris impact on conservation around the world
arrived from many high-profile national and international institutions,
including the J. Paul Getty Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the
Smithsonian Institute, the United States Department of State, the Museum
of Modern Art, the Mellon Foundation and the Royal Danish Academy of
Fine Art, to name a few.
Debra Hess Norris has taught workshops around the world, including this one
in photograph preservation for cultural heritage professionals and
advanced students in Cape Town, South Africa.
Many letter writers were students
past and present writing to express their debt to Norris, who has
taught more than half of the photograph conservators in the United
Most photograph conservators worldwide have, in some way,
been mentored by Professor Hess Norris, wrote Shannon A.
Brogdon-Grantham, photograph and paper conservator at the Smithsonian.
That helps to streamline connections when they are most needed, said
Andrew Robb, head of special format conservation for the Library of
Congress and a 1994 graduate of the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC).
In my work assisting with the recovery of photographs after the
Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, there was no faster way to
establish my credibility in the area of photograph conservation than to
say I had been her student, Robb wrote.
She is known around the world not only because of her expertise, but
also because she readily goes where she is needed to India, Colombia,
South Africa, Benin, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Russia, to name just
a few. And she welcomes these contacts, whether they are requests for
information or guidance or invitations to speak, teach or assist.
Those face-to-face encounters help to build understanding and trust, even in extremely difficult corners of the world.
As a teacher, Ms. Norris has no equal, Robb wrote. Both
encouraging and demanding, she brings out the best in all her students,
whatever their abilities and knowledge. In particular she helps
conservators to become independent, to be able to complete complex and
difficult tasks and to exercise considered judgment. Since the early
1980s Ms. Norris has fostered our field from a tiny group of less than
10 people to an international community of hundreds.
Norris has taught hundreds of workshops around the world and across
the U.S. and happily invests time in smaller groups and community
organizations, too. Dont Put Grandma In The Attic is an example of a
talk she has given to community groups who just want to know how to keep
their familys treasured photographs safe for future generations.
Despite a full calendar and frequent travel, she routinely takes on
extra duty. She has served the University as an associate dean, vice
provost of graduate studies, as a member of strategic planning
committees and search committees and now represents the faculty on the Board of Trustees.
Does she ever say No?
These opportunities are exciting, she said. You cant spend too
much time thinking about how busy you are or asking how you are going to
get all these things done.
So she typically says Yes.
In doing so, you will meet and learn from inspiring people and
create new opportunities for our students, alumna, faculty, staff and
others, she said.
Norris works closely with students to help them learn about
properties of paper, chemical interactions and other critical features
of photograph conservation.
She is an intentional connector,
something of a network hub introducing this student to that
conservator to that director to that foundation. Because her views are
respected and credible, she works to raise awareness of needs, then
helps raise the money and resources to meet them.
My most rewarding projects are accomplished in partnership with
others, she said. Preservation projects benefit from multiple
perspectives and areas of expertise. No one can do it on their own.
Empowering people to lead is so important.
With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for example,
Norris worked with the Getty Conservation Institute, the Metropolitan
Museum of Art and the Arab Image Foundation to strengthen photograph
conservation practice and awareness throughout the Middle East.
This network of organizations developed the Middle Eastern Photograph Preservation Initiative in the region that has trained more than 70 collection caretakers from Syria to Iraq, Morocco to Bahrain.
This summer she will teach a workshop for photograph collections
across the United Kingdom and in October will teach in Beijing for
caretakers of collections in China.
Photographs provide natural bridges between people, Norris said, even when they do not share language or other cultural ties.
Weddings, family celebrations everyone connects to those images,
she said. And I believe our work in preservation strengthens cultural
understanding and reconciliation. Photographs connect us in powerful
ways. They document history and celebrate humanity.
Because she is a Beatles aficionado, she often incorporates song
titles and lyrics in presentations she makes around the worldfrom Ive
Just Seen a Face to Help!
A line of John Lennons lyrics from Imagine is on a sterling silver bracelet she wears daily a call to see beyond the status quo to a world of peace and unity:
You may say Im a dreamer, but Im not the only one.
Peace and unity are not realities for many around the world.
Restoring traumatized cultures requires truth and justice, which can
bring agonizing history to the fore. Difficult conversations arise when
artifacts and images are encountered by those who lived their histories
and still bear the scars and the consequences.
You have to be totally honest about your feelings and temperament,
she said. You can be in tears and people connect to that, too.
While building cultural bridges around the world, Norris has worked
vigorously to open doors and welcome those who might not otherwise have
gained entry to the field or even considered it as an option.
She led a consortium of national service organizations in the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Photograph Preservation Initiative,
addressing the endangered archival photo collections held at many of
those institutions, while also providing training and networking
opportunities for students and others at those schools.
The expert letters in Norris dossier provide unequivocal praise for
her work in advancing the field of preservation studies with tireless
energy and dedication, Watson said. As her numerous high-profile
publications indicate, Norris works in easy collaboration with others,
not only to advance the field of photographic preservation, but also in
the spirit of mentoring others along the way.
Ingrid Bogel, recently retired from her role as executive director of
the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia,
which has conserved such items as Bruce Springsteens lyric notebooks,
Frank Lloyd Wrights architectural drawings and other high-value art and
documents, ended her letter of endorsement with a note about Norris
impact on other professionals.
It is not at all unusual to receive an email in the wee hours of the
morning regarding a creative solution to a conservation issue or an
idea for advocacy to a new audience, Bogel wrote. Her enthusiasm is
infectious and inspires others to do their best work, whether it be
treating a work of art, providing preservation assistance, reaching out
to advocate on behalf of endangered artifacts or responding to a
cultural disaster. She represents the best of us in her humanity, her
humility and her selflessness.
Those traits produce what is perhaps the most powerful result of
conservation work the impact it has on those whose lives are
represented in the objects and images.
Ricky Harris expressed this as well as anyone when he encountered
Norris generous and compassionate spirit a few years ago. It was a few
days after Christmas in 2014. Harris had just lost his mother and three
sons in a fire in rural Ohio. His best friend from high school, Michael
Emmons, who was a UD doctoral student in art conservation at the time,
contacted Norris about how to treat 200-plus photographs that had been
rescued from the fire.
Norris invited Emmons to get the photographs to Winterthur, where she
was about to teach a photo block session of the Winterthur Art
Conservation training program. She incorporated Harris photographs in
the block, teaching students how to analyze and treat them. Soon
afterward, the restored photographs and digital copies were returned to Harris and his family in Ohio.
Were pretty blown away by the fact that somebody wants to take
interest and care about this tiny little family, Harris told a
University writer while the work was underway. You tell them that me
and my family, my whole family -- we love them all.
Theres no words to say how appreciative we are.
There are no photographs to do that justice either.
Let the Francis Alison Award do the talking.
Article by Beth Miller; photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of Debra Hess Norris