By Sean Charette and Tram Vo
The history of photography in the Middle East is rich and unique, offering fascinating glimpses of life, culture, and artistic expression in the region since the medium was adopted there in the 1860s. Strong regional interest in photography persists, as seen in the work of an active community of contemporary artists and photographers. But until recently, despite this interest in the medium, the importance and value of the vast corpus of photographic materials that resides in institutions across the region were not generally recognized, and few provisions were made for the works' preservation. Since photograph collections are often not registered or catalogued, there is little compiled or shared knowledge on any scale that can provide a meaningful picture of this invaluable heritage. Typically, there are few resources allocated for the stewardship of photographic materials, including academically trained photograph conservators who can provide informed care for these collections. This situation is by no means unusual, but the needs in the Middle East are compelling and urgent.
The Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative (MEPPI),1 begun in 2011, is a strategic approach to preservation and awareness building that aims to leverage the strengths and experience of each partner in the initiative in order to address these needs. During the next three years, MEPPI will stimulate the growth of a group of professionals in the region who understand the photographic heritage and who are committed to advocating and caring for it over the long term. Importantly, the initiative also seeks to learn and share more about photographic heritage in the region and to promote its value to the public and to decision makers.
THE MEPPI PARTNERSHIP
The organizations that contribute to MEPPI—the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI)—all have a history of working in the Middle East, as well as a commitment to preserving photographic heritage. As MEPPI's work progresses, additional regional partners will join in support of specific aspects of the initiative’s program. In this way, MEPPI can bring together like-minded institutions that recognize that more can be accomplished by working collectively than through individual, uncoordinated activities of limited reach. With this unique collaboration, supported partly by generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the project partners can create a program for sustained learning and communication that encourages a comprehensive commitment to the region's photographic heritage.
At the heart of MEPPI is a series of three successive courses held between 2011 and 2014. The first course was conducted in November 2011 in Beirut. Venues for the second and third courses will be in Abu Dhabi and in a location in North Africa. The courses—each with a different group of participants—consist of an eight-day workshop followed by an eight-month program of distance learning, during which participants carry out practical assignments at their own institutions and report on these through a course website. The assignments are intended to help each participant put newly gained knowledge into practice; the work is guided by course instructors and shared with the larger group. Each course ends with a final meeting that reconvenes participants and instructors to discuss their accomplishments and challenges and to share perspectives on how best to advance photograph preservation in the region. Over the three years of the initiative, these activities will provide training, resources, and many opportunities for dialogue to approximately fifty collections keepers from Middle Eastern institutions.
The MEPPI course curriculum was developed by Debra Hess Norris, Henry Francis DuPont Chair in Fine Arts and Professor, Art Conservation Department of the University of Delaware; and by Nora Kennedy, Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both Norris and Kennedy have long histories of contributions to photograph conservation, and through MEPPI they are sharing their experience with professionals in the Middle East. Both women have written about the photographic heritage in the region and its preservation, including articles that describe a two-week training institute they conducted in 2009 with the Arab Image Foundation. (Norris and Kennedy also contributed to this newsletter's feature article, which highlights some other priorities for the field.)
The Arab Image Foundation, under the leadership of Director Zeina Arida, is crucial to the initiative as the lead regional partner. The foundation has an extensive record of building relationships with the larger world of photography and with those who work within it—including collectors, preservation professionals, archivists, and photographers. Since its founding in 1997, AIF has been a strong advocate for the importance of collecting and preserving photographs, as well as a leader of research into collections in the region. Indeed, as part of MEPPI, AIF is surveying collections in the region to identify and record pertinent information about these collections, including size, significance, mission, condition, and resources; this information will be compiled into a database by the AIF to assist individuals interested in the care and study of these collections. AIF's daily work to collect, exhibit, and preserve the photographic heritage of the Middle East places it in an ideal position to sustain the relationships created through MEPPI and to serve as a hub for a growing regional network of photograph professionals.
The GCI is also working to improve the field of photograph conservation in several underserved parts of the world, including the Middle East. As part of its mission to advance the conservation profession internationally, GCI Education seeks ways to make the learning experience more meaningful and productive for learners and looks for ways to build sustainable professional communities.
A number of GCI Education activities—including MEPPI and an earlier GCI course, Fundamentals of the Conservation of Photographs, in southern, central, and eastern Europe (2008–10)—use a model of extended learning that integrates classroom teaching and distance learning activities to provide an ongoing opportunity for learning and communication. This model offers significant benefits, including the capacity to build knowledge in a cumulative way, by revisiting key subjects from different perspectives over time. Opportunities to apply new skills and information in the workplace with expert guidance, as well as the potential for the development of strong professional networks in a region, are other important benefits. As described earlier, MEPPI incorporates this model through its structure of three separate but connected courses, each including face-to-face meetings complemented by a program of distance learning and mentoring. Given the number of people involved in the MEPPI training over its three years—and the opportunities it provides for dialogue among participants, instructors, mentors, and the wider world of photography professionals—the initiative has the potential to make a powerful impact.
In addition to the three MEPPI courses, the GCI will organize a regional symposium, to be developed in partnership with a regional museum authority, which will bring greater attention to the photographic legacy of the region by gathering professionals and policy makers to explore the rich and varied photographic collections of the region and to consider the challenges and opportunities for their stewardship and preservation. The MEPPI partners are also engaged in translating key texts on the care of photographic collections into Arabic; these texts will be made available to course participants as they are completed, and they will be compiled as a resource on the GCI's website for wider distribution at the initiative’s conclusion in 2014.
GCI involvement in MEPPI grows out of its desire to sustain and expand previous efforts to preserve the photographic heritage of the Middle East. Strategic partnerships like MEPPI increase the universe of possible solutions to a challenge by putting the resources and expertise of all of the partners to work to make the greatest impact over the long term. While all of the MEPPI partners are committed to the preservation of photographs, each brings a unique approach, experience, and mission well aligned with the need for preservation training and advocacy. Through the complementary contributions of the initiative partners, this collaboration will provide tailored training to at least fifty collection caretakers in the region. MEPPI will make this training more meaningful by creating a learning environment that supports participants as they apply their new knowledge to their own collections, and encourages them to explore the wider context of other collections, professionals, and resources in the region. Ultimately MEPPI's success depends upon the professionals who care for the photography of the Middle East. Their increasing engagement with photograph preservation—and with one another—has the potential to make MEPPI far more than the sum of its parts.
Sean Charette and Tram Vo are project specialists with GCI Education.