24
Jan
14

Research at the State Library of Victoria

Date: 23rd January 2014

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Research experience on the Charles Marville photographs at the State Library of Victoria

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I don’t usually get upset but this is an exception, and rightly so. They say that any publicity is good publicity but not in this case, because this posting goes right around the world. Read on…

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After my recent posting on Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris at the National Gallery of Art, Washington I was contacted by Robert Heather, Manager Collection Interpretation at SLV about the 330 Marville’s they have in the Pictures collection, donated by the French Government in 1881 after the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 had finished. I had know about these photographs from pages 203-205 of the catalogue from the above exhibition (see images below). The Manager of Collection Interpretation encouraged me to make an appointment to come in an see the Marville. Naturally I was excited at the prospect of doing some research on these recently rediscovered images. An idea was forming in my mind – about research that linked the redevelopment of Paris at the time of the Marville photographs with images of the expanding and developing Melbourne around the same time. The comparisons between cities and photographers, photographs, styles (such as Charles Nettleton pre-1880 and J. W. Lindt and Nicholas Caire post-1880), I thought would be illuminating.

Don’t forget I was encouraged to come in an see the Marville. Contacted by the Picture Librarian, I was asked to select TWO, yes TWO images out of 330 to look at. I think I was lucky to be able to choose two but I choose three!

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Upon arrival the Picture Librarian failed to introduce themselves and said, “Oh, your Marcus” in the most off hand manner. This person was brusque to the point of rudeness, so effacacious in their duty to protect the art work that I felt it was almost criminal to be there. It was like stepping back into the Victoria era their attitude was so unhelpful.

The Marville’s are not in albums as I had supposed (and the librarian had no knowledge of whether they had ever been in albums), but were mounted on blue cards and kept in plastic (presumably archival) sleeves. When I asked for the photographs to be removed so that I could look at the images I had chosen, I was refused! How can you possibly study an artist’s work, in this case photographs, without being able to see the surface of the print? It is just impossible to study these works under opaque plastic…

These cards should NOT BE STORED IN PLASTIC SLEEVES ANYHOW !!

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Even if the sleeves are archival, photographs need to breathe and not be suffocated in plastic. It’s like a Stradivarius violin – they need to be played, not kept locked up in a museum display cabinet because then they loose all of their resonance. And when I asked this person about what conservation was being undertaken on the images they had no idea, blithely announcing that the photographs had been on those cards for a century. This does not mean that the card is not leaching acid into the photographs and the necessary testing should be carried out to assess the stability of the material and photographs. And if they have been stable and survived for a hundred years as this person suggested, then what is the harm of actually showing them to people. A piece of cardboard that was shown to me as coming off one of the sheets is no reason to deny people the right to see these objects in the flesh.

This person had no idea who I was nor did they care that I am a professional researcher, writer and artist. But that is not the point, I could have been anyone from Joe Public wanting to look at something in the collection: it is a public institution and they have a duty and obligation to show things to the general public. In their ‘Vision Statement’ they say, and I quote:

“We want to be a place where all Victorians can discover, learn, create and connect. We want to be a cultural and heritage destination for Victorians, and a catalyst for generating new knowledge and ideas…. We will focus on developing: services and physical facilities tailored to your needs.”

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New knowledge and ideas. Services and physical facilities tailored to your needs. After the appalling experience that I had I am not so sure. I was going to apply for a Fellowship hoping to do the research I mentioned at the top of the posting, but after my awful experience I am thinking better of it. While all the Marville’s are online and downloadable at high resolution, which is a wonderful thing in itself, at this rate the Marville’s might as well be buried for another 100 years, other than being shown in an upcoming exhibition. At least at the National Gallery of Victoria when you go in to look at the work, you can actually see the photographs.

I have now requested another appointment to see the Marville’s and this time I don’t want to see just THREE PHOTOGRAPHS behind plastic – I want to see as many photographs as I would like, and be left in peace to study them, out of the plastic. As a public institution the State Library of Victoria has a duty to make these photographs available for research. If they have not got a conservation policy in place that allows them to be viewed out of the plastic, then they should have. I have asked them to let me know when this visit can be conducted and have yet to receive a reply.

I don’t usually get upset, dear readers, but this situation is intolerable for anyone, let alone a person who loves photography. The attitude spoiled what was going to be a special and magical experience. Imagine if a researcher from overseas had arrived to view these works and they had had this reception. Unbelievable.

I will, of course, keep you updated with news.

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

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“Gee have you been using these plastic sleeves for a long time?”
“Do you have many people asking to see these images out of their covers?”
Thankx to my mentor for these pearls of wisdom…

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I think people are too afraid to speak out these days for fear of having an opinion, being seen as judgemental, upsetting the powers that be. I am not afraid to call them out, especially on a subject in which I have knowledge over many years. I have been studying the new Left of the 1960s and how they put their bodies on the line out on the streets – for anti-Vietnam, pro-Communist, gay liberation, feminism and Aboriginal rights. I grew up in an era where you say what you think, fight for your freedom and have the courage of your convictions…

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Addendum

Yah – a lovely response from the State Library of Victoria !!

Hi Marcus, we’re sorry to hear your experience was not a positive one. The Marville Collection is an extraordinary anthology of photographs to be celebrated. While we certainly don’t wish to keep this treasure from the public, we do want to ensure these photographs are preserved for future generations to enjoy.

So that everyone can access these photographs at any time, we have digitised the entire collection in high resolution and made available online. We also arrange viewings of the original photographic prints by appointment but due to their age, size and delicate nature, it’s preferable that only a selection are brought out at any one time and handled with care. The plastic envelopes in which the photographs are kept are archival and the blue card on which they’re mounted is how the prints were exhibited in 1880 and include the original captions. Conservation staff have assessed the prints and original backing card and are of the opinion that the card is not causing any damage to these photographs.

Our Collection Services Manager is getting in touch with you to arrange another visit where you can see more from this wonderful collection. We look forward to seeing you back at the Library soon.

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Rue-Chanoinesse-(de-la-rue-des-Chantres)

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AS SEEN ONLINE

Charles Marville (1813-1879, photographer)
Rue Chanoinesse (de la rue des Chantres)
c. 1853 – c. 1870
In collection: Photographic views of Paris
Undated, dates assigned from time of Haussman’s renovation of Paris
photographic print mounted on cardboard : albumen silver
34 x 27 cm
Gift; Government of France; 1880

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Rue-Chanoinesse-(de-la-rue-des-Chantres)-opaque

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AS SEEN IN THE FLESH

Charles Marville (1813-1879, photographer)
Rue Chanoinesse (de la rue des Chantres)
c. 1853 – c. 1870
In collection: Photographic views of Paris
Undated, dates assigned from time of Haussman’s renovation of Paris
photographic print mounted on cardboard : albumen silver
34 x 27 cm
Gift; Government of France; 1880

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Mp203-WEB

mp205-WEB

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Extracts from pages 203 and 205 of Reynaud, Françoise. “Marville and Old Paris,” in Kennel, Sarah. Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2013.

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State Library of Victoria
328 Swanston St,
Melbourne VIC 3000
T: (03) 8664 7000

Opening hours:
Sunday 10.00 am – 6.00 pm
Monday 10.00 am – 9.00 pm
Tuesday 10.00 am – 9.00 pm
Wednesday 10.00 am – 9.00 pm
Thursday 10.00 am – 9.00 pm
Friday 10.00 am – 6.00 pm
Saturday 10.00 am – 6.00 pm

State Library of Victoria website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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