MEPPI collection-care professionals in training met recently in Morocco. Seated, from left, Nada Itani, Dar Al-Hayat Information Center; and Kifah Amin, Photographic Memory. Standing, from left, Nabila Bitar, An-Nahar; Muntaha Aldiri, National Library of Jordan; and Nahid Fadhil Mahdai, Iraq National Library and Archive.

Middle East photo heritage

Network preserving photo heritage of Middle East

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10:12 a.m., Oct. 18, 2012--The Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative (MEPPI), a collaboration among the Arab Image Foundation, the University of Delaware, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Conservation Institute that launched last year, is building a network of conservation professionals dedicated to preserving the region’s rich photographic heritage, and their efforts show it — in projects now under way from Iraq to Morocco. 

Led by the Arab Image Foundation in partnership with the Getty Conservation Institute and sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, MEPPI’s goal is to help develop a cadre of photograph conservation professionals in the Middle East, where few currently exist.

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In September in Rabat, Morocco, 16 collection-care professionals in training from seven countries across the Middle East and North Africa met with instructors from the University of Delaware Department of Art Conservation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Collections and the Getty Conservation Institute as part of the three-year initiative. 

The meeting, the follow-up to an initial workshop held last November and a 10-month online course offered in between, was filled with lectures, hands-on training in preservation techniques and progress reports by the participants on their recent activities.

Participants spoke of salvaging photograph collections at the National Library and Archives of Iraq and the WAFA News Agency in Palestine, where massive losses had been sustained during armed conflict. 

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.

“Amazing work has been done by our colleagues in the Middle East since we first met in Beirut last November,” notes Debra Hess Norris, Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts at UD. “Clearly a conservation network is forming. 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.” 

Norris, who chairs the UD Department of Art Conservation, and Nora Kennedy, a 1986 UD alumna and the Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, teach the MEPPI workshops with other professional colleagues. They have been working to help the participants overcome unique conservation challenges due, in some instances, to 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 says. “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.”

Fatima Zohra Bouallaga, a librarian responsible for the important 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 photographic 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 cultural activities on both a national and international scale,” Bouallaga notes.

“I consider the MEPPI workshop a breakthrough in image preservation in our region,” says Nada Itani, director of the Dar Al-Hayat Information Center of Al-Hayat newspaper in Beirut. “This kind of training is needed on different levels of documentary preservation since qualified and well-trained conservators are very scarce in the Middle East. MEPPI was an opportunity for our publishing house to review our current practices, to implement better policies and to promote preservation as part of our daily workflow.”

As a result of her MEPPI training, Yasmine Chemali, manager of the Fouad Debbas private collection in Beirut, has created a climate-controlled storage room and is now surveying the collection, completing individual condition reports, pursuing historical research with scholars and implementing an emergency preparedness plan.

Chemali, who is also a lecturer at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, has shared her MEPPI publications and conservation materials with her students, who have taken great interest in the work and helped to identify different photographic techniques and to write condition assessments. Some have even applied for internships with the collection.

“I am certain that this future generation of professionals will help us to protect our common heritage,” says Chemali.

Article by Tracey Bryant

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