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.”
From ‘Help!’ to hope
Because she is a Beatles aficionado, she often incorporates song
titles and lyrics in presentations she makes around the world—from “I’ve
Just Seen a Face” to “Help!”
A line of John Lennon’s 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 I’m a dreamer, but I’m 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 Springsteen’s lyric notebooks,
Frank Lloyd Wright’s 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.
“We’re 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.
“There’s 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