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268 Euclid Avenue, apt 4
Oakland, CA, 94610
United States


Roberta Piantavigna conservator of photographs


The Family of Man

The Family of Man

A collection of 503 gelatin silver prints mounted on wood, from small to large format (until 316 x 122 cm), Chateaux du Clervaux, Luxembourg

October 2010 – July 2013
Commissioned by: Centre National de l’Audiovisuel, Dudelange, Luxembourg
Project: Conservation of the Family of Man collection with related deinstallation, packaging and storing of 630 photographs. Planning of conditioning, lighting, security of the new exhibition spaces. 
Job Position: Conservator at Studio Berselli
Responsibilities: Purchasing of materials and supply for packing and conservation treatments; coordinator during de-installation, packaging and moving of the collection; In charge of planning temporary storage;  Responsible for the installation and organization of the lab (materials and equipment); Conservator responsible for treatments and supervisor of two other photo conservators.

Contact: Anke Reitz, Curator, projects & management, Musée The Family Of Man.

About The Family of Man

In July 2013 The Family of Man exhibition reopened at Clervaux Castle, in Luxembourg, after an intensive restoration period. Over three years the entire collection of photographs was temporary moved from its venue and the castle was redesigned into a modern and contemporary location.

Conservation and preservation of this unique UNESCO’s World Heritage were the keywords that have led the entire project. Conservators of photography, Studio Berselli of Milan, Italy, were called on to realize these intentions to preserve the collection.

Historical Background

The Family of Man was originally an exhibition of photographs shown at the Museum of Modern Art of New York in 1955. It was curated by Edward Steichen, curator of The Department of Photography, already known as photographer and artist of the American scene. The exhibition was composed of 305 photographs by 273 photographers from sixty-eight countries of the world. Through photography he wanted to describe the human experience in its beauty, complexity and drama from its first instants, through love, joy, sadness until illness and death. The exhibition travelled for eight years around the world, through thirty-six countries and one of its editions (apparently the last one to have survived) stopped at Luxembourg -the country of Steichen's birth - where it was displayed on a permanent basis only after 1994 in Clervaux, after the first restoration. Considered the biggest show of photography ever to have existed and seen by over 10 million people in the years since 1955, in 2003 the Family of Man photographic collection was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in recognition of its historical and cultural value.

In 2010 the decision was made by the Minister of Cultural Heritage of Luxembourg to renovate the rooms of the castle offering new modern galleries to the collection and to assess the conditions of the works.

The Conservation Project

The collection of photographs is on typical fiber-based gelatin silver prints with baryta layer. Each print was mounted on a thin (0.20 in) panel of hardboard (masonite) with a wood (or steel) frame. The formats range from 9.44 x 14.17 in to 118.11 x 157.50 in. In general to obtain large formats, many images were printed in sections, singularly mounted on hardboard panels and then assembled. Only once installed and assembled did they reach 118.11 x 157.50 inches wide.

With the term “panel” we mean the structure that includes the print, the hardboard and the frame.

Considering each photograph mounted individually we counted 532 panels. Each one had its original caption applied on the surface close to the lower right corner.

The entire collection was restored for the first time in 1990 before being shown in Clervaux in 1994. Upon the renovation of the Castle where the Family of Man was displayed, the curators of the Centre National de l’Audiovisuel (CNA) sought the assistance of the Studio Berselli of Milan - which had already directed the conservation project in 1990 – in the conservation and restoration of the prints, supervision of the activities during delicate transportation operations and dismounting and consultation for the new exhibit condition.

After preliminary on-site inspection in autumn 2010, Silvia Berselli and Roberta Piantavigna, conservators at Studio Berselli, proposed a three step program:

1. Initial conservation assesment of the entire collection; purchasingsupply for packaging and transportation; designing special pacling system for the enitre collection; deinstallation and trasportation planning; general conservation treatment assesment; on consultacy for exhibition lighting.

2. Dismounting: assistance during dismounting from walls, write-up of condition reports, first preliminary dry cleaning, packing for transportation;

3. Conservation Treatments: selection of panels to treat; realization of conservative treatments; densitometric analysis; writing reports of conservation status; digitization.

Conservation treatments

The conservation treatments proposed and realized in Dudelange were:

- Surface cleaning: solvents used were mainly ethanol and aceton. Deionized water and PhotoFlo solution (200) were used locally with cotton swab to remove stains and water-soluble residues.

- Consolidation of emulsion: surface scratches were very common but successfully reduced by the application of photographic gelatin (2% in water).

- Consolidation of paper support from the mount: the adhesion between the print and the support were reinforced with Lascaux Acrylic Adhesives 360 HV or rice starch paste.

- Consolidation of the mount: areas where the wood was flaking were restored by consolidation with Lascaux Acrylic Adhesives 360 HV

- Compensation of losses: we tried to match the layers of the print with a flexible filler. We used barium sulfate and methylcellulose (Tylose® MH 300) locally. The density of the filler varied according to the needs of integration. Once dried, we applied a thin layer of gelatin solution (2% in water). In some cases was necessary to apply a layer of barrier paper to match the surface in order to reduce the quantity of filler. In this case paper was glued to the wood with methylcellulose.)

- Inpainting: compensation of losses were painted with Winsor & Newton watercolors or Gamblin conservation colors with different size of brushes specific for retouching.  (see picture inpaintig + add n.).

Before the opening scheduled for July 2013 we reviewed all the restored panels. We checked and eventually we corrected our inpainting under the new lighting adopted for the exhibition (Stain, pp.62-66).

 Densitometry analysis

The following step after conservation treatments was the densitometry analysis.

It meant measuring the values of optical density of the photographic surface: we prepared a template to be used as reference - also for future readings. The database will be used to control surface fading to light exposure over time.


ROBERTA PIANTAVIGNA © 2016 | P.IVA 05606440963