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Director's Note: Preserving Our Photography and Technology Collections

The George Eastman Museum has been entrusted with world-class collections and a National Historic Landmark. We are the stewards of these treasures for future generations. Preservation is paramount to our mission—an ethical imperative.

The museum’s photography collection, among the oldest and best in the world, comprises more than 400,000 photographic objects dating from the introduction of the medium in 1839 to the present day. It encompasses works made in all major photographic processes, from daguerreotype to digital, for a wide range of purposes, from amateur pursuit to artistic enterprise, from scientific inquiry to documentary record. The collection includes works by more than eight thousand photographers and continues to expand. Many of the photographs in our collection are irreplaceable.

The museum holds the world’s leading collection of photographic and cinematographic technology. Consisting of more than 16,000 artifacts from the earliest days of photography to today’s handheld digital devices, the collection contains all of the equipment necessary for making photographs or motion pictures. From devices that predate the formal invention of photography to the modern instruments used by both amateurs and professionals, the collection offers an unparalleled opportunity to examine and learn about imaging technology.

Photography Vault

During the last five years, we have made tremendous progress in preserving George Eastman’s historic 1905 mansion—the largest object in our collection—through a series of restoration projects. Our projects for restoration of historic structures are continuing. Regrettably, necessary progress has not been made for our photography or technology collections, which are housed in subterranean vaults in our 1989 building.

In 2014, with support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Eastman Museum engaged a team of experts to conduct a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment of the many areas within our facilities where our collection objects are stored, exhibited, studied, conserved, or prepared for exhibition. The assessment identified and prioritized areas where the environmental conditions (temperature and humidity) should be better controlled. Our photography vault and technology vault were two of the spaces identified as the highest priorities for improvement.

The nearly thirty-year-old systems that control the environments in our photography vault and technology vault are at the end of their useful lives and are incapable of producing the climate conditions essential for long-term preservation. Many of the objects stored in these vaults (particularly photographs) are intrinsically unstable, and their chemical deterioration can be slowed down only through storage at a reduced temperature and appropriate relative humidity. We must install new systems for these vaults that can effectively maintain suitable environments, as we have for our safety film vault and our library’s rare book and special collections vault.

The planned Environmental Improvements Implementation project will install new equipment to create stable environments of 50°F and 35% relative humidity (RH) in the photography vault and 60°F and 45% RH in the technology vault. These conditions will dramatically improve the preservation of our collection objects. The total cost of this project is expected to be approximately $825,000.

The Eastman Museum has received a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for this project. The terms of this grant require that the Eastman Museum raise matching funds of $275,000 by no later than June 30 of this year. To date, we have raised matching funds of $81,000, primarily from a generous contribution from the Elaine P. and Richard U. Wilson Foundation. It is critical that we raise the remaining $194,000 of matching funds prior to June 30, 2018.

I hope that you will support the preservation of our renowned photography and technology collections by making a special donation to support this essential project. For more information, please contact Lisa Ann Seischab, Vice President of Development, at (585) 327-4942 or [email protected].

Bruce Barnes, Ph.D.
Ron and Donna Fielding Director
January/February 2018 Bulletin