Photograph Conservation: The Whipple Miscellany from Wolbach Library

A collection of photographs and paper from spread out to show the variety.

An example of materials from the Whipple Miscellany including gelatin silver and chromogenic prints before treatment and rehousing. 

by Tess Hamilton, Photograph Conservation Intern, Weissman Preservation Center

As we continue to celebrate Preservation Week, today we are highlighting photograph conservation!  With over 10 million photographs, Harvard Library has one of the largest photography collections in the country. With photographs ranging from the earliest salt prints of 1839 to modern and contemporary color and digital prints, it is also one of the most diverse in terms of photographic process and subject matter. 

A photograph of a man wearing glasses from the 1950s standing in front of a poster of the moon.  A black and white photograph of the moon with a satelite in the foreground.

A gelatin silver portrait of Whipple gesturing to an image of the moon (left) and Gelatin silver photograph from the Whipple Miscellany showing a spacecraft.  The photograph is taped in all four corners to a board and has figure annotations. This object was likely a proof print used to help determine the layout and formatting of illustrations in a manuscript (right).

The Whipple Miscellany from Wolbach Library at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is one of our current photograph conservation projects. The collection documents the life and career of Fred Lawrence Whipple, former professor at Harvard College Observatory and director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Whipple was integral to the development of space travel, and the Whipple Shield, a deflector intended to protect spacecrafts from damage caused by micrometeoroids and orbital debris, continues to be used in spacecrafts today. The Whipple Miscellany includes photographic and paper objects including gelatin silver prints, chromogenic prints, cellulose acetate negatives, offset lithographs, mimeographs, photo albums, and even objects like 3D glasses and ID badges. The collection is a fascinating window into the scientific challenges posed by early space travel, and an inside look at American culture during the height of the Space Race.  

A photograph depicting a group of people outside at night with a small telescope.

Gelatin silver photograph from the Whipple Miscellany depicting a group of people outside at night with a small telescope.  

Over the years, many of the photographs and papers became creased or torn from use.  The collection is currently undergoing conservation treatment to stabilize areas of damage and to move the photographs into appropriate enclosures to protect them from deterioration, ensuring that researchers can access the collection for years to come.

Three people standing around a table with photographs and papers laid out having a conversation.

Tess Hamilton, Bill Hanscom, and Kate Levy, conservation technicians, discuss the treatment and rehousing of the Whipple Miscellany at the Weissman Preservation Center.

See also: Conservation