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07.02.2012

New archive space takes shape

For the last few months the new archive space in no. 4 Doughty Mews has slowly been taking shape. The room in question was formerly the kitchen of Professor Caminos who lived at no. 4 until his death in 1992, and was refurbished in readiness for the storage of archival material in the summer of 2011 (see ‘Refurbishment Commences’). Immediately prior to this the room had been used for the temporary storage of archival material for which no space could be found elsewhere on the premises, most problematically two series of historic photographs which had both been returned to the Society in 2007.

Photograph taken during the excavation of house L. V. 80. At Amarna in 1922, ‘showing Mohamed Awad pounding ancient grain with ancient pestle, girl pounding ancient charcoal with ancient pounder, and boy sweeping with ancient brush.’

The first series, taken during the Society’s work at Tell El-Amarna in the 1920s and 30s had previously been kept in Cambridge where the current Amarna Project was based, but were transferred back to Doughty Mews when the project moved its base to Cairo. The photographs in the second group were taken at the temple of Sety I at Abydos in the 1920s, 30s and 70s (see ‘Amice Calverley, the EES, and the temple of Sety I at Abydos’) and had until recently been kept at the University of Oxford where the decoration in the temple is the subject of ongoing research.

An exquisite relief scene from the temple of Sety I at Abydos showing the king’s son Ramesses (later Rameses II) offering incense to Horus.

Most of the thousands of photographs in the Society’s collection are yet to be housed in ideal conditions for preservation, but these two series of photos, which had never been adequately housed since arriving back at the Society’s offices, were identified as the top priority for the work to be undertaken following the fundraising campaign in 2009-10. Fortunately, the photographs had all been scanned in 2007 which meant that providing access to the originals was not a major consideration and could take second place to ensuring they could be kept in conditions best suited to their long-term preservation.

The first step was to establish what storage materials would be needed which meant measuring the size of the originals and estimating their number, and by extension their weight – a major consideration when you have thousands of glass plates to contend with! This proved to be one of the most difficult stages in the process. There is little consistency in the size of the originals - the smallest of the 2,500 photographs in these two series are no bigger than 2 x 2.5” while the largest measure 12 x 10”, and numerous non-standard sizes are present. This meant that all the photographs, which were variously kept in cardboard boxes, old wooden drawers and a host of other containers, had to be measured by hand, a task which fell to Chris Naunton and Alice Williams.

Sam Taylor re-packing a very large glass plate from the Abydos series

During this process we also received advice from specialist photographic conservator, Susie Clark, who, along with making many, many useful suggestions, identified a small number of badly degraded cellulose nitrate photographs among the collections currently kept in the Director’s office. This material is highly flammable and needed to be disposed of immediately. Special arrangements were made to do this in November 2011, which came at no small cost to the Society but was nonetheless essential.

Degraded cellulose nitrate film awaiting disposal

In September 2011, conservator Nicola Kiddle joined the team to recommend suitable materials in which to store the originals - pHoton™ paper folders and acid- and lignin-free boxcard containers - and to begin the process of re-housing them. The acquisition of the materials was problematic in itself owing to the variety of non-standard sizes represented in the collection, which meant that in many cases Nicola (and subsequently others - see below) would have to make bespoke folders etc. by hand.

Nicola Kiddle and Tzovannis Vasallos at work on material from the Archive

The work is very time-consuming and requires great care and attention. Every photograph has to be carefully removed from the old boxes and envelopes, replaced in the pHoton folders which are then labelled with the unique number given to every image (which correspond to the scans kept in the digital archive), and then placed into a box. Each box contains no more than 30-40 photographs, far fewer than in the old fashioned drawers, so that the photos can be moved in small groups without disturbing too many others, and to ensure that the weight of the glass is more evenly spread and better supported. Nicola made very good progress in September, October and November and also recruited a willing band of volunteer specialists to speed the process along, including Sam Taylor who took over as team leader when Nicola left to take up a post at Cambridge University.

Sam Taylor (L) and Charlotte Anstis at work in the EES Library adjacent to the old kitchen where the material is to be stored

Gradually the old kitchen has been taken over by these grey boxes as more and more of the photos are re-packed, and they are now waiting for the installation of a conservation-standard shelving system. This was delayed at the start of this year by what we hope will be the last interruption before the job of re-housing these two large and important series of photographs is complete. The boiler in no. 4 broke down permanently during December and had to be replaced. A change to safety regulations since the last boiler was installed led to some minor alterations to the pipe work in the old kitchen which meant that, frustratingly, the room had to be cleared again temporarily. This work is now complete however and the room has been re-measured in preparation for the installation of the shelves.

 Boxes containing glass photographs awaiting transfer to new shelves

Newly packed glass photographs in the old kitchen at no 4 Doughty Mews

No. 4 is now much warmer than it was and we would like to apologise to those members who shivered through December and January while pursuing their studies(!). Temperature of course has an impact on the photographs as well: ideally, material of this kind should be stored at temperatures no higher than 16° C, a little lower than room temperature. We are now monitoring the temperature and humidity in the old kitchen and have been able to turn off the heating in that one room which allows us to maintain suitable conditions.

Temperature and humidity in the Archive are now being monitored

Although it has taken longer than expected, and represents only the first stage in the very long journey towards re-housing all the material in the EES Lucy Gura Archive, we are delighted that these invaluable photographs from Amarna and Abydos will soon be kept in conditions that will ensure their preservation in the long-term. The Society has a duty to preserve this wonderful resource and it is very gratifying to know that thanks to our members and others we have been able to make such a good start towards reaching this aim.

Photograph taken at Amarna in 1926-7. Local Children assist the team by 'shaking to solve the celluloid' 

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