Interviews History & Culture

Making a case for preservation of visual archives

Nora Kennedy

Nora Kennedy   | Photo Credit: Sangeetha Devi Dundoo

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Nora Kennedy: Archives are full of stories

Nora Kennedy has been talking to fellow conservationists and archivists and observing what they have to say about preserving audiovisual heritage, at the ongoing Film Preservation and Restoration Workshop at Annapurna College of Film and Media. “Some of the stories are similar. Funds are scarce but we are all passionate advocates of preserving and conserving archival material,” says Nora, who is in charge of the department of photograph conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Nora is among the faculty members at the workshop. She has visited India earlier, but this is her first such teaching experience in the country and she’s looking forward to learning more about the history of photography in India, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka through the participants.

During her earlier visits, she remembers viewing archival photography collections in India and recalls with fascination how some images were painted upon with expertise. “The royal families in India have engaged with photographers and the visuals are magnificent. Some of the images have also been painted upon in an extraordinary manner that would surpass similar ones anywhere else in the world,” she says.

When the MET introduced the Indian Conservation Fellowship Programme in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, India, and funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, photography conservation was not part of the initial course. “The programme was about conserving paintings and other objects, but photography was introduced after candidates applied and requested to learn the techniques,” Nora recalls, mentioning the scope of conservation in the country.

Nora joined the MET in 1990 and in 2015, under her direction, the museum established the department of photography conservation. In the pre-digital era when she worked on photography conservation, “We had an object (a photograph print or a film negative) that we worked upon. Today work arrives in a flash drive or external hard drive. Instead of an object, we have information (data) that we need to preserve for the future,” she says about the shift from analog to digital.

Fragile media

Today, the MET also works on Time-Based Media (TMB) conservation. Audio, video, software and any media that is bound by time falls into this ambit. The archivists understand the fragility of time-based media.

Nora calls it a mixed bag: “On the one hand there are 150-year-old photographs that have arrived at the museum 80 years ago and are still in remarkable condition, and at the other end is a digital image that arrives and we have to think of how to preserve it and how an artist would want it installed or archived.”

Archivists of moving images (film) underline the importance of saving the film negatives so that they can be tapped into with each shift in technology — 2k, 4k, and 8k resolutions.

Similarly, Nora emphasises the importance of photography negatives. “Negative is one of the items in photography that is totally overlooked. People come to me with a family photograph and say it got stuck to a glass surface [and if it can be saved]. I ask them if they have the negative and almost 100%, the answer is no,” she explains.

Wherever Nora travels and teaches, she tries to create awareness of the need to conserve the original material. “People in the US have a fascination to tell stories. Archives are full of stories and need to be saved,” she says.

Renewed approach

She has taught in other countries, including the Middle Eastern region as part of the Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative (MEPPI) and has seen how candidates initially enrol for the workshop as part of their job, when they are made in charge of photo archives. At the end of the workshop, gaining in knowledge, they don’t look at a photograph as a flat object but as a layered narrative of historical and cultural significance.

As she winds up, she hopes to inspire candidates at the Hyderabad workshop and also touches upon the challenge of conservation in India, posed by the climatic conditions. “The high temperature and humidity is a cause for concern and a challenge. But I would say a bigger challenge anywhere is the lack of awareness,” she says, signing off.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 10:39:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/nora-kennedy-from-the-department-of-photograph-conservation-at-the-met-bats-for-preservation-of-visual-archives/article30275849.ece

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