Campus & Community

Harvard launches new photo conservation program

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Conservator Brenda Bernier to head library initiative

With the Oct. 1 arrival of Brenda Bernier as senior photograph conservator in the Weissman Preservation Center (WPC), the Harvard University Library will officially launch a University-wide photograph preservation program. The University’s photographic holdings, estimated at more than 7.5 million items in 48 Harvard repositories, date to the emergence of photography in the 1840s.

The new photograph preservation initiative, made possible through a $2.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, complements ongoing preservation programs for Harvard’s 15 million books and millions of manuscripts, printed documents, maps, prints, drawings, disks, tapes, and other media. The Mellon Foundation has played a leadership role in the field of photograph conservation for almost a decade, investing in training and the establishment of positions for photograph conservators in the United States. With support from the Mellon Foundation, a second conservator and two conservation technicians will join a project team at Harvard under Bernier’s direction, staffing the new program for its first five years. In addition, a photograph cataloger will work under the direction of Steven Riel, preservation cataloger and projects manager at WPC.

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According to Jan Merrill-Oldham, the Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian in the University Library and the College Library, Harvard’s photograph preservation program promises to be challenging and multifaceted: “We hope to advance the care of Harvard’s photograph collections, and to work with other institutions to further shape and define this relatively new aspect of materials conservation.”

Bernier comes to Harvard from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), where she joined the staff as senior photograph conservator in 2001. At NARA she was responsible for assessing the nature and condition of the agency’s vast photograph collections, performing conservation treatments, preparing storage specifications, conducting original research related to photographic deterioration, and serving on the administration’s emergency response team. Previously, Bernier served as photographic materials and paper conservator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she treated early to mid-20th century photographic materials, paper-based documents, and works of art. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, Bernier earned an M.S. in conservation of photographic materials from the Winterthur/University of Delaware program in art conservation. She completed conservation internships at the National Gallery of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, NARA, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

“The new photograph preservation program will have significant capabilities,” stated Nancy Cline, Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College. “Brenda Bernier will play a leadership role, helping to integrate the activities of Harvard’s libraries, archives, museums, and academic programs in unprecedented ways.” She will collaborate closely with Pamela Spitzmueller, James W. Needham Chief Conservator (rare books); Thea Burns, Helen H. Glaser Conservator (senior paper conservator); and conservators, librarians, and curators across the University.

“A systematic, well-planned effort to preserve Harvard’s magnificent collections of photographs has been high on the library’s agenda for some time,” stated Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library. “Caring for and disseminating Harvard’s great scientific and artistic photographic works will prove to be an enormous challenge, but the outcome of the University’s work will be of worldwide importance.”