Art or Archive? - Le Mundaneum
Mundaneum’s photographic heritage put to the test of time”
As part of its role as an archive centre,
the Mundaneum houses a large photography collection. “Art or Archive?” is the
fruit of an encounter between a photographer and an archivist who decided to
join forces to preserve this heritage. In our image-obsessed society, greatly
bolstered by smartphones and tablets, it is quite ironic that we are so little
concerned with the conservation of photographs, despite our awareness of their
fragility. Nonetheless, the management of such a collection gives rise to
numerous questions about how the various supports should be preserved, as they
each come with their own unique physical and chemical characteristics.
Environmental stability is essential to their longevity: temperatures that are
too high and a relative humidity level that is too low can both cause
irreversible damage. This year, on the occasion of the 175th
anniversary of photography, the Mundaneum is celebrating by paying tribute to
the 8th art form through this cross-disciplinary perspective on its
A stack of old photographic plates is like
a time machine. Snapshot after snapshot, the deep strata double up as
interactive layers of time, whose composite image has all the characteristics
of a true artistic creation destined for the picture rails of a museum. Aside
from this purely aesthetic experience, however, another question arises with
regard to these plates. What are these marks, which take on the appearance of a
real, menacing tyrannosaurus head?
How is it that the face of the Madonna,
meant to be admired, now appears to be hidden behind the folds of a double
bird that seems to be swooping down on the young girls is the result of gelatin
migration from one photograph to another
Temperature and humidity level are the most
important factors in guaranteeing the preservation of photographs.
The following examples show the
deterioration caused by dramatic variations in these factors, including often
irreversible physical and chemical distortions.
In some cases, digitisation may help in the
conservation of this heritage, but quite often these documents are lost forever
If you take a humid atmosphere and add high
temperatures and dust, you get the perfect environment for the development of
mould and mildew!
A chemical process or a masterpiece of
Though the result may take on an aesthetic
and even poetic form, a more disturbing reality lies under the surface, begging
the question: will we be able to protect and preserve this heritage, which,
through the fault of simple negligence or a dilatory attitude, is in danger of
disappearing forever? Since 2010, the Mundaneum has put a preventive
conservation plan in place for its photographic collections, by way of
specialised training sessions and the purchasing of conservation materials.
“Art or Archive?” is a travelling
exhibition which will be presented in different locations, both in Belgium and
Contributor: Rôle—Raphaèle Cornille, Conservator of Iconographic Collections
Contributor: Rôle—Patrick Tombelle, Photographer