skip to primary navigation skip to content

The conservation of Captain Scott's photographs

The conservation of Captain Scott's photographs

The negatives

Scott's negatives were in need of urgent conservation. Some of the film negatives had started to discolour, some were affected by dirt and finger prints and some silvering was present, as expected from negatives of this age. We asked Nicholas Burnett ACR, Director of Museum Conservation Services Ltd. to find a way to increase their stability and suggest appropriate long term storage methods. The first activity was to examine the negatives, determine their state of preservation and needs. The negatives consisted of a mixture of film and glass supports.

Identifying the materials one is working with is at the core of conservation. This allows us to determine how and why an object is deteriorating, if the deterioration is still active, what needs to be done to increase its stability and what is appropriate for its long term storage.

Two possibilities existed for the identity of the plastic film support, the most likely was cellulose nitrate, though it was Nicholas Burnett ACR at work on the negativespossible that early cellulose acetate film could have been used instead. However, the presence of decay signs typical of cellulose nitrate and the absence of those typical of cellulose acetate coupled with the absence of edge markings stating SAFETY or SAFETY FILM was sufficient to identify the film as cellulose nitrate.

Cellulose nitrate is an unstable material at room temperature and would carry on decaying. To effectively halt this decay the recommendation was made that the film negatives should be stored at about -18° Centigrade. This slows the rate of chemical reactions, which is another way of looking at decay, by a factor of about 1,000. A negative that would be unusable in a year will last 1,000 years when stored at this temperature. The negatives can be temporarily removed from cold storage as necessary. To protect the negatives from moisture special packaging was used.

The condition of the negatives was mixed. The glass negatives were generally in very good condition, the film negatives were more varied with some being in excellent condition whereas others had started to discolour. This discolouration is distinct from the examples where the image had turned brown. This was due to poor processing when the photographs were taken.

The negatives were housed in an historic wooden box which matches the boxes used by Herbert Ponting on the expedition. Within the box the negatives were housed in a mixture of glassine paper envelopes or brown paper envelopes. The oldest envelopes were annotated in Ponting's writing. Unfortunately all of the storage materials were poor quality. This meant that they all had to be replaced with conservation quality materials and the historic storage materials stored separately to prevent them causing further decay to the negatives.

Having identified the materials and dealt with their future storage it was time to see where interventive conservation could be helpful. Before carrying out any treatment it is important to record the existing condition of the item. The negatives were therefore photographed and the historic damage was listed on a spreadsheet. To help prevent further decay dirt and fingerprints needed to be removed. This would also help in obtaining good quality scans from the negatives.

To remove the dirt and fingerprints the negatives were gently cleaned using cotton wool and a mixture of alcohols and deionised water. The working surface was a sheet of acid-free board covered with lens tissue to remove the risk of causing scratches during cleaning. Nitrile gloves were worn whenever handling negatives.

Once the negatives were clean, each was scanned at high resolution to produce un-manipulated 'archival' scans to record each negative. This was an important preservation step as it will help to minimise the frequency with which the negatives will be handled and thus reduce risks. One of the difficulties in scanning historic negatives is that when glass or film is placed on a flat glass surface rainbow coloured rings, 'Newton's rings', tend to form around the contact points. To avoid this, tiny pieces of clear polyester film were placed around the edges between the glass plate negatives and the scanner glass to separate the two surfaces. Special holders were used for the film negatives.

S40 was a broken glass negative. This was cleaned as above and then carefully set into a piece 'Heritage', off-white, un-buffered acid-free board. This held the pieces in place without the need for any adhesive. This assemblage was then sandwiched between two sheets of 'Borofloat', borosilicate glass. This is essentially 'Pyrex' glass and was chosen as it is stronger and less easy to scratch than normal glass but also it is chemically more stable than ordinary float glass. The three layers were then bound with 'Silversafe Photostore', photographic conservation quality, acid-free paper. The paper binding was painted black.

The prints

In early 2012, the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) was offered the opportunity to purchase 109 photographs taken by Captain Robert Falcon Scott during the British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition, 1910-12. With the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and generous matching sponsorship from the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, the Staples Trust and other private donors, an agreement to purchase was made in time to secure the photographs, which would otherwise have been offered at auction. There had been a significant concern that the prints might be sold to a private collector or be taken abroad and that they would no longer be available for study and research.

A remarkable collection, the photographs give a view of the Antarctic as seen through Captain Scott's eyes as he documented the first part of his epic journey to the South Pole. Subjects include his companions, the ponies and sledges, the scientific work they were undertaking and the breathtaking Antarctic landscape. The photographs themselves were printed in the Antarctic by members of Scott's team as they waited for his return from the Pole, and for most of the past 70 years were considered lost. Captain Scott was taught photography by the official expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting, and the collection charts his first attempts through to the remarkable images he captured on the first part of the Polar journey to the head of the Beardmore Glacier.

Contracts were exchanged and delivery of the photographs to SPRI took place on 18 May 2012. Since their acquisition, each image has been catalogued using the Picture Library's collection management software. We have been carrying out research to identify whether any of the images exist in similar versions in the Institute's picture archive. In this way, the provenance has been resolved for a small number of prints in the Herbert Ponting collection, previously misidentified but now known to have been taken by Scott. Two leading researchers with an interest in photography from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration have made significant use of the collection since its arrival at SPRI and we anticipate that a scholarly article on the images taken by Scott and other photographers on the expedition, notably Henry Bowers, Tryggve Gran and Charles Wright, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Polar Record, published by Cambridge University Press.

Under the terms of the HLF award, SPRI undertook to carry out necessary conservation work to the photographs and store them in appropriate conditions. The images have been digitised at the Cambridge University Library and these digital images provide a surrogate, protecting the originals from the effects of overhandling. The individual prints have been rehoused in conservation grade envelopes and are held in our environmentally controlled photographic store.

Work has also been undertaken to incorporate the photographs into the education and outreach work and displays at the Polar Museum, and to make them available to the wider public via the internet. The digitised photographs have been incorporated into SPRI's Picture Library catalogue.