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News A Matter of Justice and Preservation

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Associate Prof. Julie McGee (left) helps students look for the hidden gems in collections that offer few clues.

​Excerpted from the UD Research Magazine article by Beth Miller:

The box was labeled “moldy photos”–a warning that its fragile contents would require special handling.

Something truly special emerged from that box, too, something no one expected until Julie McGee, associate professor of Africana Studies and Art History, and her University of Delaware students got their hands on the 53 photographs inside.

The work they did during McGee’s one-semester class in the fall of 2017— “Curating Hidden Collections and the Black Archive”—is a fascinating study in how to research, conserve and catalog a piece of history with few available guiding landmarks. And it laid the groundwork for future classes to do likewise.

The photographs—mostly images of African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century—brought much more than the technical challenges a conservator accepts when working with historic images and objects that need attention, as these surely did. They also raised questions of justice and pointed to systematic obfuscation of the stories and identities and truths of marginalized people. The “Baltimore Collection,” as the photos now are called, doesn’t speak for itself but it has much to say to us.

“I work with and am often drawn to objects that exist in the realm of the unknown with the premise that they matter deeply, but for various reasons this meaning, and even their visibility, has been obscured. Part of the work is enabling them to be seen and providing context for ways of knowing,” McGee said. . . . The photographs came to the University from an art history alumna, Jessica Porter, in 2001. Her late father had found them abandoned in Maryland, McGee said, and they arrived at UD with little or no explanation. A variety of photograph types were in the box, including tintypes, albumen prints, matte collodion prints, silver gelatin printing-out prints (POP), silver gelatin developing-out prints (DOP) and one halftone. Almost half of them were made in Baltimore, the others in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. . . .

​Amber Kehoe of the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation talks with Allison Robinson (left) and Ethan Barnett as they study the photographs and provenance of the Baltimore Collection.

McGee built a course around this box of photographs and the questions they represented—“Curating Hidden Collections and the Black Archive,” an interdisciplinary seminar that included 11 students drawn from history and museum studies, art history, the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and Africana studies. . . . Students developed a database for the collection, using Artstor, the enormous digital platform that holds a trove of images from museums around the world. They filled in appropriate category fields and created new reports that included conservation notes for the photographs. Those notes were created by students who worked on the collection during Prof. Debra Hess Norris’ Winter Session class in the highly regarded Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.

“It was especially nice for our students to have the opportunity to stabilize a collection that had been studied intently by other graduate students at UD,” said Norris, Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair of Fine Arts. “Many of these portraits were severely water- and mold-damaged and they required consolidation and cleaning, often under magnification. “The conservation treatment of the Baltimore Collection was a wonderful project—connecting teaching with preservation and a powerful collection—one my students and I will always treasure.” . . .

“What the Baltimore Collection represents to me is that we ‘privilege’ objects that are in great condition that have legacies and histories that can be recorded,” [McGee] said. “And those are things that have provided dominant resource material for that which we can study. “The Baltimore Collection gives us something you don’t often find visible in public collections—objects and histories that have not been extensively researched. Its digitization and visibility contribute to a larger narrative related to ‘hidden’ collections and what they have to teach us.”

In other words, there are many holes in our history and many of those holes were deliberately gouged. As diversity increases—in thought, identity and experience—the gaps and the sense that something precious has been lost or hidden become more evident. Curators can address that in significant ways and students at UD have added a sense of urgency to that effort.

In the Baltimore Collection, lives are captured at a moment in time, within a specific context, carrying a unique reality. They are now preserved for our education and enrichment, housed in an acid-free box and marked “The Baltimore Photographic Portrait Collection: Preserved.”

To learn more about this collaboration and the students' efforts to trace the stories behind this collection, click here.

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WUDPAC students joined a team of eleven students from five UD departments to help preserve the legacy of an African American photographic archive.

​WUDPAC students joined a team of eleven students from five UD departments to help preserve the legacy of an African American photographic archive.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489