Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative
The Middle East is a region of the world where preservation activities to date have been focused on the considerable archaeological heritage. At present, only some institutions—primarily universities—have recognized the importance of the photograph in recording the history and culture of what is a rapidly vanishing way of life. Preservation professionals and conservators are rare in many of these countries. Those who are active tend to focus on architecture and archaeological artifacts, making the availability of information on the preservation and care of photographs difficult to access; despite a wealth of photographic heritage dating from the early nineteenth century to the present, there are no formally trained photograph conservators in the Middle East.
The Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative (MEPPI) is led by Debra Hess Norris, UD's art conservation department chair and the Henry Francis DuPont Chair in Fine Arts, and Nora W. Kennedy, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photograph, working in collaboration with the Arab Image Foundation and the Getty Conservation Institute.
The first workshop took place in Beirut, Lebanon, thanks to generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the collaboration of the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, the welcome and cooperation of the American University of Beirut, the commitment of the invited guest lecturers, and the enthusiasm and dedication of the wonderful participants. One of the great achievements of that workshop, in addition to forming a close network of like‐minded individuals, was the creation of an online publications in Arabic on the preservation of photographs.
MEPPI 2011 took place in Beirut, Lebanon, with lectures simultaneously translated into Arabic and posted on a teaching website maintained by the Getty Conservation Institute, which is also organizing and funding post-workshop distance mentoring for the participants. Each participant received books, a tool kit, and housing samples. Some revceived environmental monitors to meaure daily temperature and relative humiditiy levels. On the final day of the workshop, MEPPI participants from the collections of the royal family of Jordon to the national libraries of Iraq and Morocco, news agencies in Beirut, Palestine, and Allepo, Syria, and one of the greatest privately held photographic holdings in the Middle East, pledged their commitment to work together and with workshop organizers to share their new knowledge and engage others in the regional preservation efforts.
The National Library of Morocco was the 2012 host for the Middle East Photographic Preservation Initiative (MEPPI), bringing lectures and practical hands-on activities to 16 participants from private and public photography collections in seven countries.
In 2013, the Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative launched its third photograph preservation course in the history-laden surroundings of Darat al Funun, a platform for the arts based in Amman, Jordan. Seventeen participants joined from the broader Middle East and North Africa to take part in the eight-day intensive workshop that marked the start of the year-long training from which they will benefit.
While the workshops focus on the fundamentals of photograph preservation and collections care, a central theme was the pressing need to document the history and function of photographic practice in this region, to connect collections, to celebrate cultural memory, and to reunite orphaned holdings where possible with their country of origin. Heartbreaking stories from participants about the immediate preservation challenges associated with war and conflict and the loss of generations of family photographs intentionally destroyed by their owners to protect those depicted from peril reaffirmed the MEPPI organizers' commitment to strengthen, advance, and promote the value of photography and its preservation within Northern Africa, the Levant, and the Arab Peninsula.
From the recent UDaily article by Tracey Bryant about MEPPI 2012: “I consider the MEPPI workshop a breakthrough in image preservation in our region,” says Nada Itani, director of the Dar Al-Hayat Information Center of Al-Hayat newspaper in Beirut. “This kind of training is needed on different levels of documentary preservation since qualified and well-trained conservators are very scarce in the Middle East. MEPPI was an opportunity for our publishing house to review our current practices, to implement better policies and to promote preservation as part of our daily workflow.” As a result of her MEPPI training, Yasmine Chemali, manager of the Fouad Debbas private collection in Beirut, has created a climate-controlled storage room and is now surveying the collection, completing individual condition reports, pursuing historical research with scholars and implementing an emergency preparedness plan. Chemali, who is also a lecturer at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, has shared her MEPPI publications and conservation materials with her students, who have taken great interest in the work and helped to identify different photographic techniques and to write condition assessments. Some have even applied for internships with the collection. “I am certain that this future generation of professionals will help us to protect our common heritage,” says Chemali.
More information about the MEPPI project can be found in "Preservation Of The Photographic Heritage Of The Eastern Mediterranean," a talk presented by Nora W. Kennedy, Debra Hess Norris, Zeina Arida and Tamara Sawaya at the 2010 conference of the International Institute for Conservation. To read the preprints article for that presentation, click here. To read the UDaily article on MEPPI 2009, click here; 2012, here; and an article written by Reem Akl (Assistant Director, Arab Image Foundation) for the Tru-Vue newsletter is available here. Information about the Mellon Foundation support of MEPPI can be found here. (Photo courtesy Nora Kennedy.)
A symposium on the future direction and sustainability of photographic preservation in
the Middle East and North Africa is planned for May 2017, to be held at the Sursock Museum in Beirut,
Lebanon. To read a press release on the symposium, click here.