Collection Care Diaries: Conserving the Albert Walker Archive

Welcome to another post about the adventures of the Collections Care and Access Team, via their Visitor Team liaison, Vicky. Today we are taking a look at a recent project to conserve a photographic archive and how galleries can support each other to share skills and work to protect the objects in their collections.

The Albert Walker Archive came to The Whitworth on loan from the National Coal Mining Museum as part of the Elizabeth Price: A Long Memory exhibition back in 2019. After being made redundant from his own job as a safety worker in the mines in 1985, Walker decided to photograph as many of Britain’s collieries as he could. All are now closed and many have since been dismantled. This is the only photographic record of a great deal of these former thriving centres of industry.

The photos, which are silver gelatin prints, were catalogued using the materials Walker had to hand: ring binders and old family albums. The images were stuck onto backing card, with the name of the mine printed underneath, and placed either within a plastic wallet or underneath the plastic sheeting of the album.

Unfortunately, these materials are not ideal for the longevity of the images. The plastic wallets and the adhesive used are non-archival, which means that, as they break down over time, an acidic gas is produced which will speed up the deterioration of the photographs.

The project was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Due to cost limitations and the amount of labour needed, the bulk of the project would have to be carried out by volunteers. It was intended to begin in April 2020, not long after the Elizabeth Price exhibition ended.

By Summer 2021, the archive had been waiting to be seen to for over a year. The CCATS team were back in the gallery, but we had no volunteers in a bid to protect everyone’s safety by limiting numbers.

Our paper conservator, Dan, devised a way of protecting the photos while still maintaining the archive’s origins. We essentially needed to protect the photos from this acid by enveloping them in neutral materials. By placing the photographs in wallets made of archival polyester film, it will prevent any acids from reaching them. However, there is always the possibility that the photo will become stuck to the wallet, causing great damage to the surface of the image. To prevent this from happening, a layer of acid-free paper also needed to be placed on top of the image inside the wallet.

The ringbinders themselves also release acid, so to remedy this issue, Emma, our gallery technician, constructed some acid-free ringbinders to be used for storage. The original ringbinders will be stored alongside the archive, so that the images can be returned to them for future display.

For the photo albums, each image was carefully removed using a spatula to loosen any adhesive. The method of enveloping the photo in acid-free paper and an archival polyester wallet is the same, although due to the differing sizes of the photos and the albums, each piece of paper and wallet had to be cut to a custom size. The photo was then placed back into its place within the album, nestled in its new acid-free home.

We were very lucky to have Joanna, who had recently graduated with a Paper Conservation Masters, to help us with this project. Her affinity for working with paper certainly sped the project along a great deal! All eight ringbinders and 66 photo albums have now been conserved. While lockdown meant that this project suffered some delays, and we were not able to open up the opportunity to as many volunteers as we originally hoped, the archive is now future-proofed as best as can be, and can return to the National Coal Mining Museum to be seen by generations to come.

References

Griffiths, M. (2019) ‘Albert Walker Archive’ in Lingwood, J., Bode, S., and Griffiths, M. (ed) Elizabeth Price: Slow Dans. London: Artangel, p. 186.

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