‘Photography: A Victorian Sensation in Focus – curating, conserving and designing a major exhibition’

An acclaimed exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, on the theme of photography during the Victorian period, has recently drawn to a close. The exhibition, which explored innovations in early photography, included over 1500 photographs and related objects from the museum’s collections. To ensure that the exhibition was staged safely and delivered successfully, conservators at NMS worked closely with the principal curator, the exhibition designer, and the object handling team. This collaboration prompted an event, which was co-hosted by the National Museums of Scotland, Icon Photographic Materials Group and Icon Scotland. The event took place in the afternoon on the 15th of September. Delegates were encouraged to tour the exhibition in the morning, at their leisure. Conservators from the National Library of Scotland were in attendance – and feedback was extremely positive.

“Hearing from the conservators at NMS was really useful. It was interesting to learn about their approach to displaying photographic material. I was particularly interested in their use of discreet magnets to display some of the objects”.

Lynn Teggart, conservator, National Library of Scotland

“I really enjoyed listening to Esther, the exhibition designer. I was fascinated to hear about her vision for the exhibition, and the way that she pulled the whole thing together aesthetically, to reveal the story of early photography in Scotland.”

Simona Cenci, conservator, National Library of Scotland

NMS Photography Exhibition

NMS Photography Exhibition

To start, principal curator Dr Alison Morrison-Low described her role in coordinating the exhibition. She discussed the overall theme and presented her reasons for staging a ‘showcase’ about the development of early photography, emphasising the impact made by Scottish pioneers like Hill and Adamson. She described her favourite pieces from the show and provided some fascinating background information about these objects.

Item from the exhibition

Item from the exhibition

Following Dr Morrison-Low’s comprehensive introduction, the exhibition designer Esther Titley described her particular aims and objectives. She explained that conservation concerns were at the forefront of her mind as she began to consider the space and plan the lighting. Esther noted that common ground had to be established between her and the conservators before any of them could proceed with the task in hand. She explained that the key to their success was in keeping the channels of communication open. Esther revealed her desire to knit the exhibition together visually, by creating a unified theme –using a limited but modern palette, bespoke and befitting display cases, and interactive AV units designed to look like old fashioned tripods. She carried out some extensive research at the start of the project, taking inspiration from other organisations, incorporating some of their presentation methods. For example, cabinet cards and carte-de-visits were slotted into position using nifty rails, and glass stereos were lit from behind using carefully calibrated timers to minimise the overall amount of light exposure.

Display case

Display case

Conservators from the National Library of Scotland were keen to hear about the experiences of their museum-based counterparts.  Lisa Cumming and Victoria Hanley spoke about the challenges that had to be addressed during the preparatory phase and at the point of installation. Lisa described the stringent timeframe, the sheer scale of the project, and the specific vulnerabilities of some of the objects that they were tasked with safeguarding. The conservation team employed various tools throughout the project. Victoria explained that she became a compulsive list maker in the run up to the exhibition, and that these lists helped her to keep track of the large number of (often very small) objects.  Assistant paper conservators Emmanuelle Largeteau and Rosalind Bos provided an account of the work which was carried out to protect and prepare the huge collection of daguerreotypes.

Item from the exhibition

Item from the exhibition

Finally, Kirsten Dunne from the National Galleries of Scotland provided an introduction to Micro-fading, data from which was used to inform decisions during the planning stages of the exhibition. Kirsten explained that this technique enabled some of the museum’s salt prints to be displayed confidently, dispelling fears about their extreme sensitivity to light. To begin with some of the prints were considered to be so light sensitive, that their inclusion in the exhibition was called into question. Kirsten explained that the results of her micro-fading tests were both positive and surprising. Micro-fading was used to determine the light-fastness of various prints, and this helped to establish an object rotation rota. It proved to be an invaluable and cost-effective tool – an enabler rather than an instrument of dissuasion.

In all, the event was a resounding success, spurring heated discussions about photographic processes, conservation techniques and the challenges of putting on large scale exhibitions. As a group we returned to our workbenches a little more inspired, and a little more knowledgeable too.

Shona Hunter


National Library of Scotland

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