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Photographs preserve our history, so we have to preserve them,” says Ibrahim Abdel Fattah from the Grand Egyptian Museum, now under construction near the great pyramids of Giza.
Abdel Fattah is one of 45 staff from museums and private collections across the Middle East and North Africa who are learning how to protect the precious images of the region’s cultural heritage—from 150-year-old prints of archaeological expeditions, to the Kodachrome slides of festivals and social events in the 1980s, to current-day digital images—through the Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative (MEPPI).
Launched in 2011, MEPPI is led by the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut in partnership with the Getty Conservation Institute, the University of Delaware and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and with the sponsorship of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. The initiative seeks to build a cadre of photographic conservation professionals in the region, where few currently exist.
“Amazing work has been done by our colleagues in the Middle East since we first met in Beirut in November 2011,” says Debra Hess Norris, chair of UD’s Department of Art Conservation and a lead instructor for the MEPPI training workshops. “Clearly, a conservation network is forming, and their efforts are desperately needed. This has been an unprecedented opportunity to bring people together, not just for the sake of a particular preservation project, but for the Middle East.”
As part of the three-year initiative, the MEPPI participants have attended workshops consisting of lectures, hands-on training and the sharing of progress reports about their recent activities. A 10-month online course also was offered last summer.
Norris and colleague Nora Kennedy, a 1986 UD alumna and the Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, say they both teach the MEPPI students and learn from them.
At meetings in Morocco and Abu Dhabi this past fall, the MEPPI participants spoke of salvaging photograph collections at the Iraq National Library and Archive and at the WAFA News Agency in Palestine, where massive losses have been sustained during armed conflict.
“What’s the immediate effect of tear gas on a photograph’s silver image material? That’s a question we had not addressed before,” Norris explains. “The environmental challenges of heat, dust and pollutants facing our colleagues also are different. We’ve had to think of low-cost, practical strategies that will work here.”
Since the institute was initiated, 45 participants from 14 countries have taken pioneering steps forward. Image collections of the Royal Court in Jordan have been catalogued and rehoused. A multi-national preservation committee has been established to address challenges associated with the digital holdings for Dar al-Hayat, a Middle East news agency.
Booklets and articles on the history and technology of photography have been published in Iran, and high school students have been introduced to the importance of photographic heritage and its preservation in Morocco.
“Bringing together custodians of major photograph collections in the Middle East, the MEPPI encourages and advances the practice of photograph preservation in the region, ensuring that such precious documentation of modern Middle Eastern heritage continues to be an invaluable resource long into the future,” says Zeina Arida, director of the Arab Image Foundation, which is leading the effort.
Fatima Zohra Bouallaga, a librarian responsible for the photograph collections in the National Library of Morocco’s Special Collections Department, says the MEPPI training has helped her to understand different photographic processes and deterioration mechanisms as well as strategies for long-term preservation.
“We will try our best to improve conservation practices according to international standards, to progress on our collections preservation plan and to bring out this little-known heritage through scientific and cultural activities on both a national and international scale,” she says.
“Photographs play a very important role in writing history and will be even more so in the future,” adds Abdel Fattah, who is busy working on the premier exhibition for the Grand Egyptian Museum’s opening in 2015.
When he recently received artifacts of King Tutankhamun to carry out conservation treatments, his first step was to obtain photographs taken in 1922 by Harry Burton, the photographer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when the legendary boy king’s tomb was excavated. Through those historic photos, Abdel Fattah and his colleagues could learn of missing items, re-arrange the existing artifacts properly and also estimate their state of degradation after the tomb’s excavation.
“MEPPI is the first step to build pioneers in the Arab world who are able to carry out the mission of preserving the region’s photographic heritage,” Abdel Fattah notes.
The Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative is a collaborative effort of the Arab Image Foundation, the University of Delaware, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Conservation Institute.
museums, libraries, and private collections across the Middle East and North Africa are MEPPI participants.