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UD leads workshop to help students preserve historic photographs

Examining some old photos at the conservation workshop are (from left) Jara Wellington of the Woodruff Library, Anthony Freeman, Shannon Brogdon-Grantham, Joshua Williams of Fisk University and Debra Hess Norris.

Spelman College junior Kierra McHenry says the Atlanta University Center’s Robert W. Woodruff Library, where she works as an intern, has “so many great resources,” including photographs and audiotapes, that are not fully utilized by students. She’d like to help change that.

Lawrence Koger, a senior at Johnson C. Smith University, aspires to a career as a photojournalist and is fascinated by the history of photography and its traditional techniques that are rarely used today.

Koger and McHenry were among 10 students from five historically black colleges and universities (HBCU institutions) who attended a Summer Institute in Photograph Conservation at the University of Delaware this month. 

The institute, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of its HBCU Preservation Project, was designed to provide the students with guidance and instruction on the preservation of photographic and audiovisual materials.

The summer program has been offered at UD for about a decade, beginning with a pilot workshop conducted on campus, said Debra Hess Norris, Unidel Henry Francis duPont Chair in Fine Arts and chairperson of the Department of Art Conservation.

Norris, an internationally recognized expert on photograph conservation, frequently lectures, teaches and assists with the preservation of at-risk photographic collections in many areas of the world. She and Shannon Brogdon-Grantham, who will graduate in August with a master’s degree from the Winterthur University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, were the instructors in this year’s summer institute.

The institute is part of Mellon’s commitment to cultural preservation, Norris said. The HBCUs are invited to participate because of their valuable collections, and the students are also carefully selected for the contributions they can make in helping to preserve those collections.

“The schools represented have important collections, with significant breadth and depth, and they’ve committed to not only preserving those collections but also using them in their classrooms, to strengthen scholarship and to share with their communities,” Norris said. “This isn’t about just preserving a collection for safe storage. It is about sharing these materials more broadly — on campus and beyond.”

Jara Wellington takes a close look at a photograph during the conservation workshop for students who will help preserve important collections at their home institutions.

Brogdon-Grantham, who attended two similar UD summer programs in arts and humanities while an undergraduate at Spelman, returned to Delaware in summer 2012 as a teaching assistant in that year’s Summer Institute. The experiences at UD led her to choose art conservation as a career.

“Being involved in this program has really made a difference in my experience and my perspective,” she said. “I had the tremendous experience of being mentored here, and now as a co-instructor, I’m mentoring other students.”

She described this year’s participants as “great students, energetic and enthusiastic” and said they absorbed so much information that they will be able to work productively and independently at their home institutions. And, she noted, they can always call on herself, Norris and others in the UD network when needed.

For April Baldwin, a new graduate of Tuskegee University who is doing an internship with an archivist there, the institute was a chance to see new aspects of the subject about which she is passionate.

“I love history, I’ve always loved history, and I’ve been looking for a specialty and a way to get some training in it,” she said. “In just the first three days of this program, I feel like my knowledge about conservation has just skyrocketed.”

Anthony Freeman, a student at Hampton University, agreed. 

“This has been very valuable,” said Freeman, who plans to attend graduate school in history. “It’s made me see how history and conservation go hand in hand. It’s been an enriching experience for me.”

McHenry described a new appreciation she gained for photography and the way it helps tell stories of the past.

“Today, we take photographs for granted,” she said. “Everybody takes selfies, and we take so many digital photos all the time, everywhere we go. But these old photographs were really rare and valuable, and they need to be cared for and preserved.”

As a result of the workshop, the students have launched what Norris called “a new and exciting advocacy and outreach campaign” on their home campuses. A video, titled “Every Day is a Museum,” can be seen here.

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Students from five historically black colleges and universities attended a Summer Institute in Photograph Conservation at UD, to help preserve materials at their institutions..

Students from five historically black colleges and universities attended a Summer Institute in Photograph Conservation at UD in June, designed to help them work to preserve important collections at their institutions.

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