Help the performing arts recover

13 July, 2020

Finding a treasure trove

So you find some boxes while clearing out under the house. One full of beautiful old photographs of your great grandmother, jumbled together with rolls of old negatives. The other box is packed with albums that you haven’t seen for years.

Your first reaction is to pull everything out to see what is contained in the treasure trove! But stop! You may have found some beautiful images, but to keep them we need to take a measured approach to unpacking the boxes.

Think about where and how you are going to store these objects once you have looked at them. Ideally you want to have a place to store the objects that is free from temperature fluctuations, humidity, insects and light. There is no point inspecting and looking at the objects if they are going to go back into old boxes. Put the collection into a stable place until you have the time to inspect it.


Make sure you have a large flat surface such as a table to inspect the objects. Place a large sheet of white paper on the table, so that you can track any debris that falls from an object or dead insects that may have infested the collection.

Wear gloves, preferably powder free nitirile gloves – to protect the object from you, but also to protect you from the object. Don’t eat or drink around the objects.

Firstly make an assessment of the objects to make sure there are no obvious risks or hazards. Make sure there is no broken glass, active mould, decaying negatives or pest infestations.


Match like objects with like, and make a plan to deal with each type individually. The next post in this series delves into care for each type of object.

If you suspect that the negatives date from 1900 – 1950, put these in a metal box and contact a conservator. Cellulose nitrate as a film base was common during this time, and this type of negative has the potential to self-destruct if left in sub optimal conditions. This includes both motion picture film and stills.

After 1950, a more stable base named Cellulose Acetate was used, and will be labelled along the strip with ‘SAFETY FILM’. This type of film is relatively stable, but does degrade. When this happens it will smell sweet and vinegary. Negatives that have started to degrade in this way can still be digitised, but get in contact with a professional before starting anything.


Negative strips with a safe cellulose acetate base have SAFETY FILM across the negative strip at regular intervals


Negative strips with a safe cellulose acetate base have SAFTEY FILM across the negative strip at regular intervals.


Close up of a large format negative affected with vinegar syndrome


Close up of a large format negative affected with vinegar syndrome.



Our ethos as museum professionals, is to digitise the object as it is at that point in time. We make sure that all fading, discoloration and damage is included in how we visually document the image. You may choose to digitally repair these images to their original state, depending on your desired final outcome.

If you have a large amount of negatives it is worth taking them to a pro lab and getting them scanned as digital contact sheet. Then you can gauge what is on each roll and if there are any you want to get scanned at an archival quality.


The main idea around storage is to protect the object from the influence of any external factors. At Arts Centre Melbourne we use archival grade materials to store the Australian Performing Arts Collection. Photographs, negatives and transparencies are housed in Mylar® sleeves within archival binders. Scrapbooks are wrapped in acid free tissue and stored in archival boxes.

Every object is documented and given a unique identification number. Equally with private collections, it is important that you have a system for identifying the objects and store the information about the object with the object if safe to do so.

Archival grade storage solutions are available to the public through Archival Survival and Zetta Florence.

I can think of nothing more lovely than going thorough an old family album and being transported right back to that moment in time. Taking time and using the right materials to archive your treasures with care means the objects will be there for a long time to come.

And, if those beautiful images are of your Great Nan when she was a renowned theatre performer in the 1900’s, think about talking to us to understand if the collection fits into the history held by the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

Find out more about donating material to the Australian Performing Arts Collection.


Ari Hunter
Assistant Registrar, Legacy Data Project, Collections
Australian Performing Arts Collection


Australian Performing Arts Collection logo



Read 'Looking After Photographs at Home – Part Two'

Go to the top