Research Highlights / Full Story

'Game Changer' in the Cultural Heritage World

Since its humble beginnings nearly 30 years ago as the RIT Photographic Preservation Lab—a small department within the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences—IPI today has evolved into a world leader in the development, deployment, and dissemination of sustainable practices for the preservation of images and cultural property.

More than a thousand institutions around the world, including research libraries, museums, archives, and historical collections, employ IPI's technology and preservation management approaches, relying on IPI for its sage advice and information. For these institutions, IPI has become a trusted and valuable resource, research partner, and service provider.

"The research that IPI brings together in workshops and webinars is a game-changer in the cultural heritage world," said Erin Blake, curator of art and special collections for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. "Everyone with a responsibility for collections care needs to get the message, and IPI has proven that they are very, very good at doing that. Long may they continue."

According to Jerry Podany, senior conservator of antiquities for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, "IPI's research and contributions in the area of collections and archives care are well known throughout the preservation field."

"They have undertaken numerous solid and well-thought-out research programs, nationally and internationally, which have resulted in useful tools and data for those charged with conservation of cultural heritage," Podany said. IPI has achieved its success through a meticulously balanced offering of research, publications, educational activities, products, and services that meet the ever-changing and wide-ranging needs from world-class institutions to the corner library and the shoebox photo collector.

One example is IPI's wide range of topical webinars, which have been viewed in 47 countries around the world and in each of the United States, according to Patricia Ford, project manager.

"Here at IPI we've always understood that preservation research is an applied discipline in which the laboratory is only the beginning, and technical papers are not the end of the task before us," said James Reilly, who has served as IPI's director since its inception in 1985. "That is why we have tried at every turn to publish and disseminate our findings and to create publications and useful tools that serve the preservation and education mission."

Fiercely devoted to scientific research in preservation technology for library, museum, and archives materials, IPI's inaugural focus was the preservation of photography, microfilm, cinema, and other forms of recorded information. In the last decade, however, IPI has broadened its mission to include a wide array of materials found in cultural institutions and focusing on the role of the environment in preservation management.

Support from federal and private foundations continues to be critical in the development and distribution of IPI's technology. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are the primary sources for funding and outreach. Over the past year, IPI has received more than $1.5 million in federal funding. IPI also benefits from longstanding contracts with important institutions such as the Library of Congress—affiliated with IPI for more than 25 years—and the U.S. National Archives.

According to Daniel Burge, senior research scientist, all of the research and lab work "would be useless if it weren't converted into easy-to-understand-and-use publications and tools."

Today, Reilly notes that IPI has expanded its staff to 17 people comprising research scientists, preservation specialists, and administrative personnel. Over the years, the research and field-testing focus has expanded through the development of important tools for assessing and managing collection storage, and display environments in museums, libraries, and archives.

IPI has enhanced its six distinct websites and further developed a wide variety of online tools to assist research and education in support of artifact preservation.

Environmental Consulting Services

Temperature and humidity are the fundamental culprits behind decay when it comes to collection materials. To help institutions offset their effects, IPI provides its clients with Preservation Environment Monitors (PEMs), the only environmental monitoring hardware designed specifically for use in cultural institutions. Already in its second generation, the PEM2 is a highly accurate temperature and humidity data logger designed for use with eClimateNotebookTM — IPI's Web-based environmental data analysis software and reporting tool that informs users how the environment is affecting the long-term preservation of their collections.

The proliferation of digital technology is providing IPI with additional focus areas relating to preservation. With support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and IMLS, IPI initiated the Digital Print Preservation Portal, known informally as DP3. The website is designed as a resource to explore aspects of digital printing and publishing. Since inkjet, dye diffusion thermal transfer, and digital electrophotography are relatively newer technologies, many archivists are uncertain as to the potential longevity of newer submissions to their collections.

According to Burge, DP3 provides users with the means to compare aspects of newer technologies in relation to major deterioration issues so they can integrate the information into an overview that offers practical advice.

Graphics Atlas, another online resource, presents an object-based approach for the identification and characterization of prints and photographs. The site encompasses traditional printmaking, photo-mechanical, photographic, and digital print processes that are user-explored through interactive imagery and text. IPI takes advantage of social media by allowing people to sign up for an "interesting picture of the week" email or "like" IPI's Facebook page.

Climate Change Spurring New Research

Global climate change is expected to result in more frequent and severe natural disasters. Recently, IPI received a National Leadership Grant award from IMLS to help in the creation of disaster prevention response and recovery plans for modern inkjet prints in museum collections.

Despite the large numbers of inkjet-printed documents, photographs, and other art materials within museum collections, museum personnel are typically unaware of the makeup of inkjet materials or how to care for them—including how to prevent or respond to damage caused by natural disasters such as floods or other unintended exposures to water.

"Many inkjet prints are considerably more sensitive to water damage than traditional prints," said Burge, who is leading the research. "We began this two-year project at the end of last year, and it is designed to help museums develop best practices to help in the recovery and preservation of modern inkjet prints in their collections."

Burge noted that with climate change resulting in a greater number of severe events such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012, "this research is as timely and important as ever."

Preserving Film Collections for the Future

IPI was recognized with a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1998 and has a long history of providing preservation tools for the Hollywood film community and independent film archives. The NEH recently provided funds to IPI for an education and training project designed to develop best practices for preserving film materials in museums, archives, libraries, and other repositories. The project will create an educational website called FilmCare.org that will include an easy-to-implement decision-making tool for preserving all types and formats of film materials. This resource will provide a comprehensive synthesis of several decades of scientific research and experience in the field of film preservation, highlighting the need for defining sustainable approaches to film care, and facilitating the process of implementing best-fit preservation strategies for a wide variety of real-life situations.

"Despite the growing move toward digital formats, photographic film collections still are an important source of information for the humanities, and if properly cared for, these valuable records will be available to researchers and digitization programs far into the future," said Reilly.

FilmCare.org, expected to launch in January 2015, will be available as a standalone tool for self-education at no charge. IPI is developing the content, architecture, and functions of FilmCare.org as well as programming the application. Results will be disseminated to the field through a series of webinars and presentations and will be posted on various distribution lists.

Future of Preservation Continues to Evolve

IPI is continually evolving its laboratory research and field consulting practice in sustainable environmental management. Inside the laboratory, IPI is exploring how rates of thermal and moisture equilibration can be used to lower energy consumption and protect objects from uncontrolled adverse conditions. Beyond the laboratory, it is helping teach institutions how to use less energy through controlled shutdowns of mechanical systems, altering seasonal set points, reducing airflows, and reducing outside air quantities.

"One thing is abundantly clear—the path forward for sustainable environmental management is cross disciplinary in nature, including collection care and facilities management, and, of course, people," said Reilly.