Local sustainable solutions to safeguard historic glass plate negatives in Myanmar
For many years, glass plate negatives in Myanmar were stored without special care. The negatives, some of which depict monuments that have since been damaged or destroyed, are a vital record of national and universal significance, yet have been in very real danger of being lost.
Recognizing the significance of this documentary heritage, the Department of Archeology and National Museum, under the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture, and UNESCO are working to save the rare and priceless collection under the project “Supporting the Post-Disaster Recovery of the Bagan Archaeological Area and Monuments through the Preservation and Digitization of the Bagan Photographic Archive”.
About 5,500 silver gelatin glass plate negatives (GPNs), taken from 1903 to 1941, are kept at the Department of Archeology and National Museum. The collection includes images depicting monuments, reliefs, sculptures and paintings related to the Bagan Archaeological Area and significant places across the country.
Due to the fragile nature of the glass plate negatives and the unfavorable environmental challenges such as high humidity and temperature change, the collection is at risk. The storage conditions and quality of enclosures contribute to the degradation of the images, which may eventually lead to the point of total loss.
UNESCO carried out assessments on the condition of the GPN collection and photographic archive in January 2019. Based on the recommendations for immediate action to stop or slow down the degradation process and extend the life expectancy of the collection, a preservation training on glass plate negatives was organized by UNESCO on 22 – 26 July at Yangon Branch Office of the Department of Archeology and National Museum. This was intended to provide preservation skills to the Department’s staff in rehousing the collection as well as increasing knowledge on GPN preservation.
“I appreciate the dedication and enthusiasm of the participants. They all are proactive and interactive during the sessions,” said Professor Bertrand Lavédrine from the French research Centre on Conservation under the Ministry of Culture, who led the training. “When it comes to handling and cleaning historical artefacts, some specific knowledge and care is required, especially if the work is not carried out by photograph conservators. The staff learned how to make four-flap envelopes to store the GPNs, and what to do and not to do when cleaning the GPNs. A few hundreds four-flap envelopes were produced during the training.”
Based on sketches and drawings provided by Professor Lavédrine, two prototypes of boxes to store the GPNs were made by the participants. Corrugated polypropylene and corrugated plastic boards were used to make the boxes due to the local availability, low cost, permanence, compatibility with photographic materials, and resistance to environment, insects and mold.
“UNESCO procured the materials to make the boxes locally for sustainability and to avoid usual high shipping cost of archival materials from Europe,” said Naing Naing Aye, National Project Officer of UNESCO Myanmar Project Office. “After the training, the housing of GPNs will be improved and most of the GPNs will be cleaned so that we can step forward to another stage which is to digitize the GPNs.”
Most part of the training was hands-on with practical exercises, and staff learned how to make different sizes of envelopes to keep the GPNs, to draw and construct conservation boxes with locally available materials, and to start caring for the collection.
“Supporting the Post-Disaster Recovery of the Bagan Archaeological Area and Monuments through the Preservation and Digitization of the Bagan Photographic Archive” is being implemented with the generous funding provided by the Republic of Korea through the National Archives of Korea.
Main photo credit: © UNESCO Myanmar/Naing Naing Aye