The saying goes that 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. This could certainly be said of the photographs and postcards in the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Archive, which show us what the theatre looked like over time. They provide a snapshot of its performers and performances, the costumes, set designs and more besides. We have in excess of 1000 photographs and postcards in the collection.
I have recently catalogued the Archive's photograph collection which dates mostly from 1931 to the 1990s. It includes views of many of the performances by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and Sadler’s Wells Opera plus more recent photographs of the various companies that have performed at the theatre. Amongst other images are exterior and interior views of the theatre building and events and receptions, some attended by royalty and celebrity guests. The collection also contains postcards of the 'stars' of Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic, an example of which is shown below - see if you can recognise the actor (clue: he was later in a popular BBC TV comedy series).
Cataloguing the photographs proved a tricky task, mainly because they were either unlabelled or only partially labelled and mostly unsorted. Through a bit of detective work it was possible to identify many of the photographs. For example, I was able to roughly date some of the photographs from information about the photographer whose stamp was on the back of those photos - he was active only during the 1930s and 1940s.
Given the historical value of the photographs I needed to ensure that they were properly stored and packaged to prevent them from being damaged and, in some cases, from being further damaged (see below).
Damage can be caused in many ways. One is the packaging and albums in which the photographs are contained; standard packaging materials (like envelopes) and albums tend to be highly acidic and can 'burn' into photographic paper. Some of the storage albums were made of PVC and plastic, which was sticking to the photographs and leaving a sticky residue.
Other photos had been stuck into albums with sticky tape. I can’t quite understand anyone doing this as the tape oftens falls off after only a few years, leaving behind it a nasty yellow/brown stain on the document which can’t be easily removed, if at all. Just as bad is permanently gluing photos into poor quality albums!
To prevent further damage it was necessary to remove the old packaging where possible and replace it was archivally safe packaging. This has included archival polyester plastic pockets. These are stable and chemically inert unlike the regular plastic packaging you would find in a stationery shop, which will deteriorate over time causing damage to photos and other documents. The archival pockets also protect the photos from handling. In addition, special acid-free folders and envelopes were used in the repackaging and all boxes used were acid free too.
For advice on looking after your own photos, the National Archives has a useful leaflet on its website: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/archivesconservation_photo.pdf.