College preserves image collection

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Todd Mishler | February 17, 2017

BELOIT — Pictures may say a thousand words, but those words change considerably depending on who's looking at the images.

“Every generation uses a different lens and way of looking at the world, so they see things from a different perspective,” Krista Barry said. “Their interpretations are different and can change over time, too.”

Barry is an assistant curator at Beloit College's Logan Museum of Anthropology, which boasts a collection of more than 29,000 images.

So, for researchers, students and the general public to continue to enjoy and use many of these resources for posterity, the college will undergo a massive conservation effort this semester to preserve the collection's historical and intrinsic values.

Beloit College received a $9,958 Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS, which it will use to digitize, preserve and re-house many of these items — the color prints, slides and cellulose nitrate and acetate negatives.

“These photos show how and why things have changed,” said curator of collections Nicolette Meister, the museum's acting director while Bill Green is on sabbatical during this academic year. “That's why it's so important for us to preserve and document them.”

Some of the photos date as far back as the late 1890s, and the National Endowment for the Humanities grant has allowed the museum to conduct an assessment of the collection to determine which ones will be placed in vapor-proof packaging for cold storage in a new freezer in the Godfrey Anthropology Building.

One example is James D. Tobin's 1980s photos from his work in New Guinea, which the college obtained in 1995.

This preservation project eventually offers the institution the opportunity to digitize the materials and in turn provides long-term options to meet changing/improving technology.

The grant also allowed consultant Gary Albright, a paper and photograph conservation expert from New York, to complete an exhaustive three-day needs assessment of the overall collection. He will return this spring to evaluate the project's progress and conduct a hands-on workshop with museum studies students.

“He looked at every photo, confirmed what everything is and filed a report,” Meister said. “We're hoping as many students as possible participate in the project and take advantage of and learn from him.

“IMLS support will make it possible for us to preserve a rich photo archive and to train our students in new preservation techniques,” said Meister, a Denmark, Wisconsin, native who has been at Beloit College for 17 years after doing her undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and getting her master's degree at the University of Colorado.

The freezer is scheduled for delivery in mid-April, with the idea of finishing the project by the end of the semester.

“This is the only way, from a long-term perspective, of preserving these items, especially those in color,” said Barry, a native of Derby, Vermont, who finished her undergrad and graduate work at Beloit College, where she has worked in the Logan and Wright museums on campus as well as with the Beloit Historical Society.

Barry's primary responsibility will be implementing the project, although her position is scheduled to end when Green returns in May.

“This process gives students a hands-on opportunity to apply what they're learning in the classroom,” Barry said.

The college also received NEH funding to further research, catalog and digitize the Frances Bristol Collection, which was donated from 2006-'14 and documents four decades of ethnic and linguistic identity, cultural tourism, economic development and community change in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The museum hired Carolyn Jenkinson, who received her master's at UW-Madison, as project coordinator. It focuses on the region's textiles, which have been featured in an exhibit at the Logan Museum.

Approximately 8,000 slides from Oaxaca also will be packed for cold storage.

The museum's overall collection features items from across the nation and the world, but many of them document more than a century worth of fieldwork from Beloit College faculty and students, the museum's exhibition history and its role as a teaching institution.

“These photos are part of the history of this college and museum,” Meister said. “We're a teaching museum, and they show how students and field studies have changed while documenting those processes. They're an important part of showing that we're not just the objects (collected here), but they're the documentation and preservation of what's happened, and that has value.”


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