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Students at UD workshop learn to preserve historical photographs

Examining old photos in a UD preservation lab are, from left, Jae Guttierez, student Christopher Houchen of the Atlanta University Center's Woodruff Library, Shannon Brogdon-Grantham and Debra Hess Norris.

For students from 10 historically black colleges and universities who took part in a seven-day preservation workshop at the University of Delaware this June, a picture might really seem to be worth a thousand words of history.

The hands-on program, led by Department of Art Conservation faculty members Debra Hess Norris and Jae Gutierrez, gave the students training and practice in preservation techniques. All will return to their institutions and assist with work on photo collections there.

"Their colleges and universities have very important collections of significant historical value," said Norris, who is Henry Francis duPont Chair in Fine Arts and chair of the art conservation department. "And, like all smaller institutions, they can benefit from preservation assistance. The students in the workshop gained not just knowledge and skills but also awareness of how important it is to preserve these materials."

The 20 students attending the workshop learned to examine old photos from a new point of view and an eye to how each item should be stored to prevent damage to the paper or finish. They learned the different types of photos that preceded today's digital imagery — daguerreotypes, tintypes and Cyanotypes, for example -- and created some of their own images using traditional processes on photographic paper.

"I was doing a work-study job in our archives, and I was just intrigued by the history I realized I could learn from photographs," said Keenan Brown, a student at Jackson State University. "I heard about this summer institute, and I thought it was such a great opportunity to learn something new and do something meaningful."

The workshop participants came from a variety of majors. Only some are considering careers in conservation or museum work, Norris said, but all are interested in history and in assisting with collections in their institution's library or archives.

"My major is political science, and I really had no interest in preservation until I started interning in our archives," said Tayler Salter of Tuskegee University, which has extensive historical collections. "Now, I'm still thinking about law school, but I'm also considering graduate school in some area of conservation."

An alumna of a similar UD summer program who now is pursuing a career in the conservation field is Shannon Brogdon-Grantham, who returned to campus this summer as a teaching assistant for the program. While an undergraduate art history major at Spelman College, she attended two Arts and Humanities Summer Institutes at UD.

"In the summer of 2008, I had a casual conversation with Jae [Gutierrez] about the job of conservator, and that turned out to be a defining moment for me," Brogdon-Grantham said. "I thought: This sounds like a career for me."

She became a student worker at the Spelman library, took additional courses in required subjects such as chemistry and completed several internships, most recently at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Since the UD workshop ended, she has gone on to intern at the National Museum of African Art and to help with the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which will be displayed at this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Later this summer, Brogdon-Grantham will begin graduate school in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, where she said she might decide to specialize in textiles, photographs or objects.

"I have a lot of diverse interests, so I'm really grateful to be able to get as much varied experience as possible before I start graduate school," she said. "I hope the workshop this summer gave these students the chance to learn about career paths they might never have thought of."

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Students from 10 historically black colleges and universities took part in a seven-day preservation workshop at the University of Delaware this June.
Students from 10 historically black colleges and universities took part in a seven-day preservation workshop at the University of Delaware this June.
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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489