Fragile memories

I never expected to meet my dead relatives at work, but last week I may have done just that.

photographRecently I’ve been lucky enough to work on a really special part of our archival collection: a large set of Edwardian photographic negatives on glass plates. Some of these are of Christchurch and New Zealand scenes but the vast majority were taken near the Antigua Boatsheds: snapshots of folk enjoying a paddle-about in the boatsheds’ hired canoes and rowboats.

Now I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve attempted that particular lark I’ve ended up wet. Very wet. I don’t know how or if these early-1900s boaters managed to avoid that particular fate but, wow-eee, they are dressed up to the nines! The ladies are in fabulous dresses – not to mention some truly enormous hats – and the gents look absolutely spiffing.

These images are real survivors. Not only have they come through over one hundred years with nothing worse than a bit of dust and the very occasional lost corner but they also, by virtue of their own quite considerable boxed weight, stayed put on their shelf through all our recent rocking and rolling. Now we’ve started on the process of gently cleaning and rehousing them so that we can, in future, make them available as digitised images on our website.

Cleaning a glass plate negativeFactory-produced glass plate negatives with a gelatin-based emulsion were in wide use by photographers from the 1880s up until the 1920s, when they were suceeded by the more convenient gelatin silver paper negatives and gelatin silver negatives on celluloid roll film. They are fragile but they produce fantastically detailed images. If you have glass plate negatives of your own, the American National Archives provides some good advice about how to store them. If you think they need to be cleaned, however, please consult a conservator as it’s easy to irreversibly damage these treasures if you’re not sure what you’re doing.

And those dead relatives? Well, as I was working my way though one set my eye was caught by a familiar surname on an image showing three young ladies in canoes. Sadly I never met my three maiden great-aunts of whom my mother speaks so fondly (the last died a few months before I was born) but I rather like to think it’s them, enjoying an afternoon’s “messing about in boats.”

We’ll be working on getting these images ready to digitise for a wee while yet, but I’ll keep you posted about their online debut. Meantime, have a browse through some of our existing heritage images – those Victorians and Edwardians will surprise and delight you.