Preserving photographic history in modern packages

RIT, George Eastman House design protective casing for historic daguerreotypes

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A. Sue Weisler

RIT student Zack Loughery displays a daguerreotype safely held in the protective covering that he and his team developed to preserve these early historic photographs.

As the business of traditional photography ebbs, preservation of the processes that shaped its history continues to flow.

Fifth-year packaging student Zack Loughery worked with the preservation team at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film to protect some of photography’s history using modern packages. He was part of a team that developed a new archival storage and protection covering for daguerreotypes, the earliest yet short-lived photographic process popular in the 1840s and 1850s.

The 4,500 daguerreotypes in the Eastman House collection are not only recorded images of people and places in 19th-century America, but they are historic examples of early photographs. The Eastman House, originally home to Kodak founder and philanthropist George Eastman, is a distinguished National Historic Landmark, a notable film archive and the world’s oldest photography museum with one of the largest collections of daguerreotypes.

“They are as visually appealing as they are educationally significant,” says conservator Ralph Wiegandt, project coordinator in the Kay R. Whitmore Conservation Center at Eastman House. The Eastman House conservation team has extensive experience preserving early photographs but looked to the packaging professionals at RIT to provide next-generation “packages” for preserving these artifacts for an even longer period of time.

The team built a recloseable storage unit that modifies how argon, an inert gas, is introduced into the structure to flush out oxygen and moisture. The unit is one solid piece made up of impact-resistant plastic with a low reflection index, effective permeability properties to hold the argon for an extended period, improved sealants and a more efficient valve system to close the structure.

The valves are key elements of the structure. The sides of the cover can be opened easily to place the daguerreotype. Once closed and secured with the valves, they are strong enough to withstand pressure at 70 pounds-per-square-inch, says Loughery, who also works as the lab coordinator in the College of Applied Science and Technology’s Dynamics Lab. “The cover would blow up before the valves failed.”

The team delivered a prototype of the storage unit to the Eastman House this past winter quarter.

“It’s nice to know that we contributed to protecting these pieces of artwork because they are priceless,” says Loughery, who is from Sussex County, N.J.

The prototype reduces the need for large-scale environmental control systems that need constant maintenance and energy supplies, says Changfeng Ge, associate professor of manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology/packaging science. The prototype maintains environmental temperatures as it removes pollutants that can cause the silver-plating to tarnish and irreparably damage the daguerreotype.

Ge, director of RIT’s American Packaging Corp. Center for Packaging Innovation, is Loughery’s graduate advisor. The two worked together in 2010 when Ge developed polymer foam packaging materials for protecting life-support systems on NASA lunar missions. John Glass, a graduate packaging science student, also assisted Ge on that project before moving on to the Eastman House initiative. Glass provided the initial concept and specifications; Loughery and co-op Matt Marion, a mechanical engineering undergraduate, completed the prototype. All contributed to the final product.

“These students set the example of how a cross-disciplinary team can all be successful,” says Ge.