Stephen Gray 2009-10

I was lucky enough to be awarded a grant from the Anna Plowden Trust and elected to learn more about the conservation of photographic materials.

My current role involves the collection, standardisation and preservation of research data from the Arts Faculty at the University of Bristol; it could be anything from a digital recording of a new symphony to a 3D laser scan of an archaeological dig.

In terms of conservation specialism, my interests have always been contemporary art and media. Although sometimes ‘simple’ in terms of physical makeup (and sometimes not), other factors can come into play which make these materials extremely vulnerable.

The obsolescence of complex technology required to access content, a poorly understood need for accurate documentation and the possibility of sudden and irreversible loss (especially when digital material  is involved) mean contemporary art and media can be just as ephemeral  and as unstable as any other manifestation of our cultural heritage.

Many of the challenges will be familiar to anyone practicing preventive or remedial conservation regardless of specialism, but what I have found to be atypical is the skills required to care for these materials. These days I am more likely to be reading ‘The Development of the Linux Operating System’ rather than ‘Chemistry for Conservators’.

I have found that working on the cusp of conservation and digital preservation can be challenging but it is overwhelmingly a positive experience.

A good example is film conservation; nitrate film became acetate, acetate became polyester and polyester became digital MXF file. I’ve found however, that basic conservation principles remain applicable across the ‘digital divide’. Some new techniques may be called for but I  have been able to apply conservation methodology without major changes.

I remain grateful to the Trust for the assistance they offered to me and all they do to support the conservators of today and tomorrow.

  • Stephen Gray, Technical Projects Co-ordinator Research Fellow Bristol University