“Heat is the driver of all decay, and it varies from substance to substance,” says Daniel Burge, addressing a group of museum staff. From January 17 to 19, Burge, a senior research scientist at the Image Permanence Institute, led a workshop on digital print preservation at the museum. Organized by HoMA collections manager Celeste Ohta, the workshop attracted staff from such fellow institutions as Bishop Museum and Shangri La. The Image Permanence Institute is a nonprofit lab that originated with the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, and now receives funding from the Mellon Foundation, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the NEH.

“You have a philosophical conundrum,” Burge continues. “Do you make storage recommendations based on a median, or based on the weakest link? What do you think, Susan?” he asks museum conservation technician Susan Thomas. She mulls the question for a moment, then suggests isolating each item by medium, so you can deal with paper differently than fine art prints.

“That might work,” Burge says, adding that the answer ultimately varies with each institution’s collection and climate. Since humidity is a major issue in Hawai‘i, the group took careful notes when Burge discussed the prevention of color bleeding in humid places. This took place on the second day, during a session geared toward technicians like Thomas.

In the previous day’s opening session, Burge defined terminology and dispelled some common misconceptions. For example, to some the idea of a “digital print” may connote a sense of permanent cloud-based storage, while in reality the term refers to physical objects, often printed in limited or single editions. Just like traditional art objects, the prints of digitally composed images require careful control of temperature and light to be successfully preserved. This varies based on how each print is made.

Close-up examples of digital print methods (left) and common types of decay (right) from Burge’s slideshow.

Two years ago, the museum presented Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, Iranian graphic designer Hamid Rahmanian’s exhibition of digital prints from his illustrated edition of the eponymous 10th-century Persian poem. When the exhibition came down, the museum acquired one of the digital prints, Jarireh’s Nightmare. During the workshop, this piece was used as a model for study (the diagnosis: A-OK). They examined older digital prints, too, including Meidor Hu’s Westford, VT, Satun from 2002.

Museum librarian Sachiyo Kawai‘ae‘a examining work by Meidor Hu for bleeding colors. According to Burge’s research, bleeding magenta is an early sign that a work needs better storage conditions. Fortunately for the Hu, our cool vault acts like a tourniquet, and no magenta bleeding was found.

“We have a lot of contemporary art that uses digital printing and digital processing, and it’s a direction that we are collecting in,” says Ohta, who was the sole Hawai‘i applicant accepted to Image Permanence Institute’s workshop in Rochester last October. 

“During my communications and emails with the Image Permanence Institute, they offered to bring the workshop to Hawai‘i because there were so many people interested,” Ohta says. “It’s so hard for our community to get professional development because it’s so cost prohibitive. I said we would host it, and we set up the meeting space.”

Ohta invited local institutions like Bishop Museum, the University of Hawai‘i art galleries and libraries, the Hawai‘i State Archives, the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, and Shangri La. Staff from these organizations joined 19 HoMA employees from the curatorial, collections, photography, operations, and archives departments.

During his visit, Burge toured many of the storage areas these departments use, and offered advice about classification, display, and long-term care. As he pointed out, an inkjet print on canvas ages differently than an electrophotographic print on paper. Then there’s local artist Drew Broderick’s Death of Cook after George Carter, an inkjet print with a smear of acrylic paint across it—two elements that age differently. The piece is also frameless—something that concerns Arts of Hawai‘i curator Healoha Johnston.

“I have been in conversation with Broderick about his thoughts on framing it to protect the edges that already show some surface abrasion,” Johnston says. “After talking with Celeste, and considering Daniel Burge’s advice, it became very clear that caring for the piece means finding a solution that is in keeping with the artist’s intention, while adhering to proper conservation measures to ensure longevity of the piece.”

In the vault, collections manager Brady Evans (left) showing Burge (right) William Castellana’s 2008 digital print ‘Rorschach Study #1.’

Burge’s multi-session workshop offered something for all of the museum’s conservation-related departments. “With technological advances and artists using those advances, it’s important to know exactly what we’re dealing with so we can keep it in a good condition,” says collections technician Al Ness, who works to preserve our fine art collection, which is gradually adding more digital prints.

In the museum’s Robert Allerton Art Library, head librarian Sachiyo Kawai‘ae‘a deals with a high volume of digital prints, which serve more utilitarian purposes and require less intensive care. “We have ebooks, online and digital publications, and artist files, like newspaper clips and articles, and Xerox copies,” she says. “There are a lot of digital materials in the library, but still I’m learning what the differences between them are, because they have different paper, different kinds of ink, and my role is to manage the information so that it can be useful for researchers.”

The rate at which the museum acquires new digital prints depends on curators. “It is important for collections managers and curators to know the specifics about the inks and pigments used in digital prints,” says Johnston, “as well as any kind of treatment to the canvas before or after the printing process so we know how best to store it, display it, and very importantly, can determine the amount of time a piece can be on view before needing to rest.”

As Johnston and other curators wade deeper into the inkjet abyss, thus continuing the museum’s mission to present an encyclopedic collection, Ohta and her teammates will continue working to stay ahead of the curve to preserve it. “If we are able to do just a minimal amount,” she says, “it will prolong the life of our collection.”

Photos: Cynthia Low. Slides: Image Permanence Institute.