Timeless photos

 A significant aspect of preventive conservation in museums is store the objects in our care in the proper way to ensure a longer lifespan and minimize deterioration. 
Acid-free materials such as card, tissue and foam are used to cushion objects from vibrations and protect them from dust and light. Regular office supplies and cardboard boxes would not be suitable for this purpose as they are not pH neutral and off-gas overtime, which could react with the objects.

Collection Manager Georgia Miller providing object handling training to volunteers

Vinegar syndrome

Within the Documentary Heritage collection at Auckland Museum is a collection of over 80,000 photographic negatives which belonged to industrial photographer, Barry McKay. The negatives were originally housed in acidic storage and overtime the collection has deteriorated.

A negative which has deteriorated from Vinegar Syndrome

The negatives have experienced acetate film base degradation, also known as ‘vinegar syndrome’. The chemical make-up of the plastic causes them to degrade, and this degradation is vastly dependent on storage conditions. Vinegar syndrome results in a pungent vinegar-like odor and is followed by embrittlement, shrinkage and warping in the negatives.

To improve the storage of the negatives, each one needs to be transferred into an acid-free envelope, have any information transferred onto the new envelope, sorted numerically into acid-free boxes and moved into cold storage rooms. When stored at a temperature of 1 degree it greatly slows down the rate that the negatives degrade from vinegar syndrome.

Many hands make light work

When this project first commenced we had between 1-3 volunteers come into the museum once a week to assist the collection care team in rehousing the negatives into their new storage. Some great progress was made but after two years we had only completed quarter of the negatives! So we decided to try something new and came up with the idea of hosting a 3-day working bee style workshop for 18 volunteers.

Three volunteers working on rehousing the photographic negatives


The volunteers were mostly Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies students or graduates looking to gain practical, hands-on collections experience to supplement their CVs. This desire paired with collection care's need to rehouse thousands of degrading negatives made for a perfect match up! As well as being an opportunity to assist the museum with a collection care project, the working bee also offered opportunities for networking, behind the scenes tours and specialist talks from museum professionals. 

A win-win scenario

After the three day intensive effort some great results were achieved! Almost 10 percent of the collection was rehoused, catalogued, and moved into the cold storage rooms. This kind of large-scale collection rehousing work could not be achieved without the help of volunteers. It was a pleasure to host such an enthusiastic group of volunteers, we are grateful for their time and effort and thankful that we could offer them some insight and practical experience in collection care. 

The rehousing of the Barry McKay collection still has a long way to go. A second working bee to complete the negatives will be held in June 2019, we are hoping to make some more progress on the negatives whilst again offering a behind-the-scenes museum experience for a group of volunteers.