Blog posts by Marla
Posted November 19, 2013
Last summer, MAH archives intern (and San Jose State Library Science graduate student) Greg Gardner processed the Paul Johnston Collection. He writes about his insights in tackling this photographic collection, and how we here at the Museum preserve our collections for generation to come. Thank you Greg for all your diligent work in making the archives accessible.
By Greg Gardner
Libraries, museums and archives preserve items from the past so the community of the present and the future use can learn and enjoy them. All of these institutions make a major commitment to preservation. Most people when they hear preservation first think about saving paintings like the ‘Mona Lisa’ or protecting documents like the ‘Declaration of Independence.’ But because photographs are relatively new, less than 200 years old, and so commonplace, most people are carrying a camera phone, preserving them is not an immediate thought. Photographs have had a profound impact on society. The photos of Matthew Brady, Mark Gardner and others from the battlefields of the American Civil War provided a stark reality of death and destruction in war, this influenced public attitude towards the war and how it should be waged. Then there are the photographs of W.H. Jackson, the first person to photograph Yellowstone. He captured the natural beauty of this area. Without these photographs Congress may not have created the first national park. There are many other instances in which photographs have captured a moment that energized a community. All institutions must take action to preserve these historic resources, historic treasures, our heritage, for the present and the future.
One of the special collections at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History archives was donated by Paul Dombey Johnston in 1986. He was born in Vancouver, Washington in 1889. He moved to Capitola, California with his family in 1899, finally settling down in neighboring Aptos in 1905. He worked as a cherry and apple picker, in an apple drying shed, and sold popcorn at the Capitola Beach. He later became a mail carrier and then an owner of a gas station and garage. He married Christina Henrietta Jensen in 1913. They were both avid sportspersons travelling extensively across Northern and Central California. Another passion they both shared was photographs and photography, they collected and captured almost one hundred years of history that included the people, places and events that helped to shape Santa Cruz County.
Paul and Christina Johnston were strong community supporters. As a mail carrier Paul travelled throughout Aptos and the surrounding region. He probably knew every resident in the area. Christina was an active member of the Parent Teachers Association and she supported her community by collecting for the Red Cross and even sewing clothes for those in need during the Great Depression. This strong sense of community led to their desire to carry the history they had saved forward to future generations. There photographs have been used to help tell stories such as the book “Forever Facing South” by David Heron or in photograph exhibitions like “I’ve Seen It All” organized by Paul Johnston himself.
The photographs in the Johnston Collection illustrate many issues faced by preservationists today. These issues are not unique to the Johnston Collection. For example, in Deadwood, South Dakota a professional photographer’s, Josef Fassbender, photo collection from the early 1900s was recently unearthed in 2011. The staff and volunteers who are processing this collection are already discovering issues of photographic paper deterioration and exposure to moisture and dust. Photograph degradation can be broken down into three categories: biological, mechanical, and chemical. Biological degradation is most often exposure to mold but also includes bug or rodent infestation. Fortunately, the Johnston Collection did not show any signs of biological degradation. However, there are signs of mechanical and chemical degradation.
Mechanical degradation occurs when a photograph is exposed to a mechanical force that stretches, pulls, contracts, expands, tears, gouges, or scratches. Most often this is an unintended consequence of poor storage
This photo from the Johnston Collection is of a group of friends on the street outside the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk about 1907. The lower left corner shows the effect of bending and flexing a photograph. The vehicle on the left side in the background is difficult to identify due to this distortion. Also, along the creases some of the photograph medium itself has sloughed off, these locations can also provide a pathway for other forms of degradation.
This photo is of two women and a man on a set of railroad tracks alongside a cattle gate. This photograph shows a more subtle form of mechanical degradation. Many photographs are kept in photograph albums or scrapbooks using corner tabs. These corner tabs can over time, through constant pressure on the same spot, distort the photograph. Looking at the corners of this photo one can see the obvious signs of flattening in comparison to the rest of the photograph. These corners can be weakened to the point that they can easily break or tear off.
This photo shows the Neptune Casino about 1905. In this instance, the Johnston’s saved this photograph by gluing it in a scrapbook. At a later date he wanted to use it for some other purpose so he attempted to remove it from the scrapbook. The process of removing the photograph resulted in corners being torn off. This issue is still prevalent with the newer forms of albums in which the photographs are mounted on self-sticking paper.
A photograph is created by a chemical process. In some cases these processes may not be the most stable so they can deteriorate over time without any outside influence. However, in most cases there needs to be an exposure to an outside source for chemical degradation to occur. This outside source can be exposure to light or varying levels of moisture.
This photo is of the Rio Del Mar Beach near Aptos most probably from the early to mid-1950s. This is an early Kodacolor photographic process; unfortunately this early process was not the most stable. These earlier Kodacolor photographs over time tended to fade to magenta. This naturally happened as they aged; they did not have to be exposed to any outside element. A few years later Kodak perfected the process so this type of fading no longer occurs.
This photo is of a group of people, including Paul and Christina Johnston going on their honeymoon, outside the Aptos Train Station in August 1913. The band across the middle of the photograph clearly demonstrates the effect of extended exposure to light. Usually there is not a band like this but there must have been books or other objects stacked on the photograph. Photographs will usually not show fading effects as long as there is a reasonable light intensity and a reasonable length of time. It is the combination of light intensity and time that causes photographs to fade.
This photo is of Christina Johnston with a group of her co-workers from the Hihn Apple Packing Shed in the 1910s. This is a good example of the silver oxidative-reductive deterioration, otherwise called silver mirroring. In the dark portion lower right of the photo there is a bluish-silver speckling, the silver molecules are clumping together. Photographs from about the 1890s to the 1920s can show this silver mirroring. The mirroring will usually start on the outer edges of the photograph and work its way towards the center.
Preservation is the process of saving an item for as long into the future as possible. The most important preservation step that can be taken is to control the environment. Extreme temperatures and/or humidity, or extreme daily variations in the temperature or humidity, is a major culprit in the biological, mechanical, and chemical degradation of photographs. For photographs the rule of thumb is colder is better. But, there is also a practicality to photograph storage, not every organization can have a freezer storage facility. The Library of Congress Audio Visual Conservation Center at Culpepper, Virginia is a freezer storage facility for over 1.1 million motion picture films, television and videos. A specialized facility like this is expensive to build, to maintain and also requires very strict protocols for moving the film to and from the storage area to prevent mechanical degradation. So, for practical purposes the optimum storage temperature is 18 C (65 F) with a relative humidity of 35-50%. Proper storage temperature and humidity are the most critical components of the preservation process.
Proper storage materials are another important component of the preservation process. Storage boxes provide the next line of defense for photograph collections. Boxes provide protection from dust and other pollutants, accidental mechanical stress, and most importantly from exposure to light. The last line of defense for photographs is the enclosures. These enclosures can be made of paper or plastic, with plastic enclosures the photograph can be held and looked at through the enclosure. Enclosures provide extra stiffening thus reducing the likelihood to bend, flex, or fold the photograph. They also protect the photograph from dust and other particulates. Finally they prevent handling damage, the oils from fingers are kept away from the photograph (finger oils are acidic, attract dirt and can help promote chemical reactions in the photograph). These enclosures, since they are in direct contact with the photograph, must be non-reactive. All storage materials used should pass ANSI IT9.16 Photographic Activity Test (PAT) to ensure they do not cause fading or staining. This multilayer storage provides the best protection possible for photographs.
Digitization is another tool that can enhance the preservation of photographs. Creating digital scans of photographs can increase access to these historic and artistic resources while at the same time reducing the handling of these resources and their exposure to the environment. Digitization involves more than just taking scans of photographs. There is also the collection of information called metadata. The descriptive information of the photograph such as the dimensions, the condition, the photographic process, and even whether it is the original or a copy are important to maintain the identity of the photograph. As with all photographs it is also important to collect information on the subject of the photograph – the who, what, where, when and why. This metadata is critical to maintain the context of the photograph. Another area in which digitization is demonstrating its usefulness is the preservation of scrapbooks and photo albums. There is no longer the need to attempt to gently separate, or cut, the photograph from the glued or sticky pages to get access to single photographs. The photograph can be scanned while it is still in the scrapbook and the digital copy shared. Digitization is powerful tool that can help with the preservation of photographs.
Preserving our heritage is an important function for museums, libraries, and archives. Preservationists have to balance the preservation of an item with the access to and exhibition of that item to promote learning. As an individual, as a community, as a society, we will not know where we are going if we do not know where we have been. We must learn from our past, what was done right or what was done wrong, to prevent mistakes in the future. All of us can take some basic common sense actions to preserve out photographic heritage for many years to come.
“Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs,” Library of Congress. Accessed August 15, 2013, http://www.loc.gov/preservation/care/photo.html
“How should I store my photographic prints?” National Archives. Accessed August 15, 2013, http://www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives/storing-photos.html
Reilly, James M. Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints. Rochester, NY: Rochester Institute of Technology, 1986.
Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn and Dianne Vogt-O’Connor. Photographs: Archival Care and Management. Chicago: Society of American Archivist, 2006.
Posted October 17, 2013
Like most people, I enjoy celebrating birthdays and all sorts of anniversaries of happy events. I dread remembering the sad stuff. I know you’re supposed to acknowledge them so you’re grateful for the good times, but sometimes I block out bad memories–store them in a box and close the lid.
A couple of weeks ago my fabulous collections volunteers (aka “The White Glove Crew”) and I decided to work on a new cataloging project. I chose a box in the collection room labeled “Communication, Documentary Artifact” (nomenclature for museum cataloging is awesome). Inside we found a brick salvaged from a building in downtown Santa Cruz after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. It looks like an ordinary brick, but of course its history is extraordinary.
The very next day, a woman named Karen visited the Museum. She donated the earthquake brick years ago, and she came to bring me another one. I told her how I had just completed a new inventory of the artifact the day before. The timing was almost spooky.
Karen smiled and said, “Well these things happen; when you acknowledge it, it makes everything better.” She went on to tell me that reclaiming these bricks had been a labor of love. The Sunflower House (once on California and Rigg Streets) had cleaned the bricks. Then volunteers with Parks and Rec attached the commemorative plaques. Karen reminded me that even in challenging times, a community can come together and that’s worth remembering.
I was just out of college in 1989, and was in downtown Santa Cruz on October 17th. When I tell me earthquake story (many of us have them), I like to joke and say I was shopping for earrings when the quake hit. I still have my gold hoops, although I don’t wear them anymore.
That story is better to remember than envisioning people lying down on the sidewalk, some clutching their chests. I choose to block out the screams and the looks of panic on faces I immediately saw after the shaking stopped. Or forget the sight of cars with smashed hoods damaged from falling building bricks (these bricks?). Or the sound of broken glass I stepped on as I made my way down Pacific Avenue.
But sometimes you have to open the lid on bad memories to remember the good ones. I recall how I got home that night. I was about to catch a ride from one of my friends. As we made our way through the dust and rubble, my mom turned a corner, waving me over. Somehow she had managed to get downtown and find me moments before I left. These things happen.
A few weeks ago, I was assembling my daughter’s disaster survival kit for school. I packed a mini flashlight, a garbage bag to make a rain poncho, and some packages of tuna and applesauce because they’re less perishable food.
My daughter said, “I hate that stuff. What if there’s really an earthquake and I have to eat this?” I told her “Don’t worry, just when you open the lid of your applesauce container, I will be there to take you home.” Because that could actually happen; it had before.
Posted September 16, 2013
When I was a kid, there was a huge piano in our house. I took lessons for many years, liked to practice, and have 3 songs in my repertoire. My childhood piano currently resides in my home (which incidentally was the residence of a piano teacher in the 1930s), but it remains mostly dormant. It is a lovely receptacle for photographs, vases, report cards, and other miscellaneous remnants of our lives.
A few years ago I received a phone call from a man in San Jose. He owned a painting of a Santa Cruz piano teacher and wanted to donate it to the MAH. I wondered if it was the same piano teacher that had once lived in my home, the one I secretly hoped would haunt my house in the middle of the night. I’ve been waiting to wake up to the melodies of a lone pianist. But that hasn’t happened, and the painting isn’t of my phantom musician.
Generations of Santa Cruzans may remember taking piano lessons from Vera McKenna Clayton. Born in Oakland in 1871, Vera moved to Santa Cruz in the early 1920s with her husband, Donald. Their Broadway St. home must have been a music lover’s dream with a parlor equipped with two grand pianos and an organ in the living room.
An accomplished musician and composer, Vera is credited to writing “Floating Down the San Lorenzo River,” published by the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce for the 1928 Santa Cruz Water Pageant. She also penned the 160th birthday song for the City of Santa Cruz in 1929. Vera died in 1978.
In the painting, Vera at the Piano (by artist Sybil Hunington) we encounter a woman in a classic three quarter portrait. It’s a very French inspired, Rococo-esque composition of light and lyrical pastel hues. Vera is sweetly smiling, turning a page of music at the moment we stumble upon her practicing in the parlor. She’s looking at us perhaps about to say: “Oh this old thing? Did you like it? I just composed it this morning.”
I met William J. Adams, Jr. in 2004 when he came to the MAH to donate the painting. Mr. Adams is a graduate of Chaminade High School (Class of 1933). He married his childhood sweetheart, Maryjane, at Holy Cross Church in 1939. Maryjane’s piano teacher, Vera McKenna Clayton, played the organ at the ceremony. Mr. Adams gave me some biographical information about his wife and himself, and I thanked him for the painting.
I followed up with a formal letter of gratitude (standard practice), and so began my correspondence with Mr. Adams. Through the years, I have received updated information for the donor files. I look forward to these letters and enjoy writing back (never email), thanking him for the additional info, notifying him when the painting was on display, and sending my condolences when Maryjane passed away.
Upon receiving a letter this past summer, I wrote to thank him as usual. Instead of a reply from Mr. Adams, his daughter-in-law called to tell me that 96 year old Bill can’t drive to Santa Cruz anymore. He no longer writes much, yet Mr. Adams wanted to make sure my files were updated. It was important to him—and to me. As I write this, I have learned that Bill passed away last week. The file is complete.
I love that the story of an artifact doesn’t have to end with one account, but it can continue, overlap with another, and along the way connect others to it. And so I add my story to Vera at the Piano. I didn’t take lessons from her and she didn’t live in my house, but I wouldn’t mind hearing Vera play my piano, preferably in the middle of the night.
Posted August 13, 2013
My parents never sent me to summer camp when I was a kid, and I don’t send my kids. It never seemed interesting or fun to me. Maybe I was afraid of not being liked, of being unpopular.
Last month the MAH hosted “You Can’t Do That in Museums,” where museum professionals, artists, and designers had 2.5 days to make exhibits out of artifacts from the MAH’s permanent collection.
This camp was an experimental approach to developing labels, interactive elements, and interpretative experiences to enhance engagement with museum collections. The experience was crazy, creative, and exhilarating. I was in charge of selecting the artifacts that would be “hacked.”
I picked some old favorites and some I thought would be interesting to interpret. I regard many of the artifacts in the MAH collection as my “children” (gosh, don’t all collections management people do?).
I took the selection process personally. Would the campers like my choices? Would they find merit in the least favorite, forgotten ones?
One group worked with Peter Zecher’s Untitled: Totem, created in 1977. Some campers joked it looked like a magazine rack. I felt like the sculpture was being bullied at summer camp.
The art historian in me thought this was blasphemous talk, but I secretly agreed with them. In the collection room stored safely in a corner, Untitled: Totem had being ignored for years.
Untitled: Totem is a free standing construction of knotty pine and enamel. California artist Peter Zecher (1945-1996) was known for his geometric inspired work.
This undulating sculpture echoes the architectural lines of a high rise hotel in a cityscape. You could even make the argument that its kinetic design is reminiscent of (stay with me) Bernini’s baroque masterpiece, David, right before the young man flings a rock at Goliath. Or maybe it looks like a wine rack (ouch).
The museum campers researched the artist and looked at the MAH’s archival information about the sculpture. They found the correspondence between the artist and Museum staff. Zecher explained the process in which he worked, how he came about donating the sculpture, and his delight in doing so.
The display of Untitled: Totem is intriguing, brilliant, and a little startling. The campers were inspired by the “lost” status of the sculpture, and placed it in front of an open crate, half swathed in bubble wrap (like a partially clothed Roman statue? Okay, I’ll stop.).
The exhibition brings up questions about artifacts and their signifance. When and how does art fall out of favor? Much like historical objects, often its significance is attached to its back story and in its role as documentation of a movement, of a moment in time.
After the exhibition ends, when all the other artifacts return to the collection room, I would like to keep Peter Zecher’s Untitled: Totem on display longer. I think it deserves that.
Summer camp isn’t so bad. Even the unpopular kid/sculpture can make new friends.