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An acid free solution for Vinegar Syndrome

An acid free solution for Vinegar Syndrome

By Georgia Brockhurst
Tuesday 28 February 2017

Collection Manager Georgia Brockhurst with volunteers Hannah Fotheringham, Alicia Taylor and Heike Eichenberg. The team are re-housing the negatives from the Barry McKay collection under the Fume hood in the Conservation Lab

Georgia Brockhurst (Feb, 2017). Georgia Brockhurst and volunteers. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

What is the collection?

Within the Documentary Heritage collection at Auckland Museum is a collection of over 60,000 photographic negatives which belonged to industrial photographer, Barry McKay. The negatives were housed in acidic storage and overtime the collection has deteriorated.

Barry McKay had a widespread client database and his images range from shop fronts to product photography and portraits. This particular negative has begun to warp and crinkle; a characteristic of vinegar syndrome

Georgia Brockhurst (Feb, 2017). Barry McKay photographic negative. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Why have the negatives deteriorated?

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 rather pungent vinegar-like odour and is followed by embrittlement, shrinkage and warping in the negatives. The higher the temperature and humidity of the storage conditions, the faster the onset of degradation.

One of the many boxes of degrading photographic negatives, in their original storage.

Georgia Brockhurst (Feb, 2017). Barry McKay negatives in original storage. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

What can we do?

This is where the Collection Care team comes in; I have been working alongside a team of three volunteers, Hannah Fotheringham, Heike Eichenberg and Alicia Taylor to rehouse the negatives into more suitable storage. When new objects are re-housed it is important to mitigate potential harms to the collection such as pests, dust and light, and to ensure the new housing is accessible and appropriate for long-term storage.

To re-house the photographic negatives, we transfer a portion of them to the Conservation Lab and work underneath a fume hood - this limits our exposure to the fumes from the negatives and also helps us to escape the smell! One by one each negative is removed from its original storage and carefully transferred to an acid free envelope.

Volunteers re-housing the negatives underneath the fumehood

Georgia Brockhurst (Feb, 2017). Volunteers in the Fumehood. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Barry McKay created his own numbering system for the negatives which he recorded on the original envelopes and to ensure information isn't lost, we are transcribing this information as well as client names, dates and any other notes onto the new acid free envelopes. The information is then logged onto a spread sheet with details of where each negative is stored to allow us to easily locate them. Following this, the envelopes are sorted into numerical order and grouped in larger acid free boxes.

The new storage - the negatives are transferred from their original storage into acid free envelopes and boxes

Georgia Brockhurst (Feb, 2017). Barry McKay negatives in acid free housing. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

The process of rehousing, recording and sorting 60,000+ negatives is quite extensive and the help offered by the volunteers is invaluable. Hannah, Heike and Alicia dedicate one day a week to coming to the museum and contributing to this project - we simply couldn't do this kind of work without them!

The team working on re-housing and logging details of the negatives onto the database.

Georgia Brockhurst (Feb, 2017). Data entry - Barry McKay photographic negatives. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

What's next for the collection?

The most effective method to prevent deterioration in photographic negatives is to store them in cold, moderately dry conditions. At the new storage facility the negatives will be kept in cool storage; around 1-2 degrees for the acetate film negatives and 12 degrees for the glass plate negatives. They will also be stored separately from the non-degrading film to prevent the spread of the vinegar syndrome.

  • Post by: Georgia Brockhurst

    Georgia is a Collection Manager, Collection Care at Auckland Museum and works in preventive conservation.