The devastating losses at the national museum in Rio De Janeiro in early September reminded me of the sad state of the Bradford archives I visited in the spring, and the high cost of cultural preservation.
In Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of residents stood outside the shell of their national museum, crying and speaking of intense sadness at the loss which has been blamed on funding cuts in recent years that left the institution with few functioning fire extinguishers and smoke detectors.
The science and practice of conserving museum artifacts and archival records requires knowledgeable staff and expensive storage materials and facilities, an expense not well understood or obvious to the public, and so, easily cut from a budget line.
Documents and artifacts deteriorate at a surprising rate when temperature and humidity are not carefully managed, and in most archives, costly devices are installed to control these conditions and are checked and analyzed frequently.
Conservators working in museums and archives, use their extensive scientific training to tease out solutions to problems of deterioration of photos, paper documents, and other items to make repairs and halt the process of deterioration as much as possible.
Most archives also store documents in expensive acid-free folders and boxes to slow down deterioration of documents from acidity emanating from the paper itself and coming from the surrounding environment.
Some archival collections also hold images that exist only in the form of a glass negative, thick and heavy. And, of course, fragile; requiring costly and specialized storage and handling conditions all their own.
I don’t know enough about the science to go into the details but I have seen the results and you have too, no doubt, in your own collection of old photos where the colour has washed out from age, or have gotten moldy and stuck together from being kept in a humid place. Or on documents where the ink has faded altogether, making them virtually useless.