Through the Conservation Keyhole: Conservation analysis and basic conservation treatment for archive’s photographs collection – Brittany Johnston

Hello, my name is Brittany, and I have been completing a 20-day work placement as Preservation Assistant at the University of Glasgow Archive Services as part of my Masters programme in Technical Art History: Making and Meaning. This placement has involved working with various kinds of photographs in the archive’s collection, and assessing their condition, possible conservation treatment and changes in storage. I have always had a love of photography, so I was very excited to work with a collection that had examples of such a vast array of early photographic processes.


University of Glasgow Staff Photograph measuring 81.5 cm x 152.6 cm (

A large part of my work at the Archive has been to complete condition reports for photographs in the collection. The first photograph I worked on – a large-scale albumen print of the staff of the University of Glasgow – took me a full day and a half to complete the report for. The photograph showed many signs of damage, from large tears and completely detached pieces, to scratches and stains to the surface. Describing the object and its condition in detail was something that I was familiar with from my studies, but I was unsure how to make recommendations regarding display and storage of such a large and fragile object. However with Ela’s guidance we worked through the various possibilities, and decided on the best options for that particular case.


Condition report for the University of Glasgow Staff Portrait (

I was so intrigued by this photograph that I needed to find out more. I tried to identify some of the individuals in the photograph – and succeeded with a few of them – which I thought could help to narrow down the possible date when it was taken. I then focused my attention on a signature in the bottom left corner – Lafayette. As I discovered, ‘Lafayette’ referred to a photography studio established in Dublin in 1880 by James Stack Lauder, who later expanded and opened a studio in Glasgow in 1890. George Marsh Lauder (brother of James) was photographer and manager of the Glasgow studio. With this information, it became clear that the photograph could have been taken no earlier than 1880 or 1890.

Cleaning 4

Cleaning silver print portrait DC90/7/8/4.

With this photograph finished, I moved on to look at a series of silver print photographs, which were quite unlike the albumen print. They showed very different kinds of deterioration, more to do with problems inherent in the materials – such as the oxidizing of silver – rather than the mechanical damage that was so apparent on the albumen print. With the reports finished, I moved on to cleaning the photographs before repacking them for storage. Using a sponge, which I applied in small semi-circular motions across the backs of the photographs, I removed much of the dirt and dust that had accumulated on them. Where there was card or paper showing on the front of the photographs, I cleaned it as well. I then transferred the photographs to polyester pockets for storing. Previously, the silver prints that I worked with were placed inside folders and secured with cotton tape. In the case of one – a portrait of Andrew Muler – the cotton tape had worn away the card backing of the photograph where it made contact, leaving visible marks. By moving the photograph to a polyester pocket large enough to leave a 3 or 4 cm margin on all sides, the risk of damaging the edges when handling were greatly decreased.


Flickr album containing a selection of photographs from the collection of the Robertson Family of Rutherglen, Scotland.

Over the last three weeks, I have been working with a set of 26 ambrotype photographs that belonged to the Robertson family of Rutherglen, Scotland. These small photographs are beautiful, with their intricately detailed brass frames, and the incredible detail that they are able to capture. A few of them are also hand-coloured, adding an extra element to the already fascinating collection. Unfortunately, photographing these ambrotypes proved very difficult, as the glare on the glass reflected not only light, but in many cases, a clear reflection of the camera as well. After many attempts, I managed to get relatively good images of the photographs. This was very important, as we decided to make an album of the ambrotypes on the Glasgow University Library Flickr account.


Before and after: Repacking of the Robertson ambrotypes (DC253/1/1-26).

After completing the condition reports, I spent one afternoon and the following morning uploading images to Flickr. For each photograph, I included images of both recto and verso, and in some cases, detail photographs as well. I also wrote brief description for each photograph, as well as an album description explaining the project. I was very pleased with the way the album turned out. The photographs are so beautiful that I love the idea that by putting them up on Flickr, we have made them far more accessible to the public so that others may enjoy them as well.

Once the Flickr album was complete, I began repacking the ambrotypes. Initially, they were wrapped in archive paper, however this made them bulky and awkward to handle.  I learned how to cut four-flap folders to get the appropriate shape for the ambrotypes. Because these photographs are framed they are between 0.4 cm and 0.6 cm high, which required folders that allow depth. Using the measurements that I collected for the condition reports, I measured and cut folders to fit the photographs.

This process was very time-consuming, partly due to the fact that the photographs were a range of sizes, which meant that I couldn’t just make the folders from a template, but rather had to measure out each one. I spent a full morning and afternoon making these folders. The surfaces of the ambrotypes were also very dusty, so before putting them in the new folders, I used a very soft brush to carefully remove as much dust as possible from the surface. The next step for these photographs will be to take them to the conservation studio and remove the white stickers with the accession numbers from the brass frames.


The steps for making four-flap folders for the Robertson ambrotypes.

Working with these photographs has certainly given me a better eye for detail and a more methodological approach for assessing the condition of photographs. I have learned a great deal about the various forms of damage and deterioration that can occur in photographic prints, as well as their causes and effects. I look forward to continuing my placement, and learning more about early photographic processes.

Categories: Archive Services, Library

2 replies


  1. Conservation analysis and basic conservation treatment for archive’s photographs collection, part 2 – Brittany Johnston | University of Glasgow Library
  2. Through the conservation keyhole: behind photographs in Erskine Project – University of Glasgow Library

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