SOME USES OF A VIDEO CASSETTE RECORDER IN THE CONSERVATION LABORATORY
Alexander Katlan, Barbara Appelbaum, & Paul Himmelstein
1 THE USE OF THE VCR IN CONSERVATION AND OTHER COLLECTION SURVEYS
TWO OF US (Appelbaum and Himmelstein) about two years ago purchased a video cassette recorder and video camera for use in conservation surveys. The choice of equipment was made primarily on the basis of cost and ease of use, although we specified that we wanted to be able to use the camera in low light levels, and we wanted a macro lens. The equipment was very helpful.1 With no additional lighting in dimly-lit storage rooms and exhibition galleries, we could quickly record all the pieces surveyed, with as many views as we wanted, and with details of areas of damage using the built-in zoom lens. For pieces like large or complex sculptures, the use of the VCR provides more information than almost any number of still photographs. Our informal comments, keyed to the needs of the survey, were also recorded on the tape, along with any identifying information. When helpful, we referred to a list we had previously prepared containing the categories of information we wished to note. This is sometimes important, as in many surveys it is impossible to go back to pieces seen previously to record missing information. The video tape allowed us to record a great deal of information and store it in a compact way.
Our basic procedure in doing surveys on tape is to examine each object first and discuss our findings. When we are ready to record, one of us holds the object, moving it as necessary for the picture. This person reads the accession number and condition notes aloud onto the tape, and points out areas that would benefit from close-ups. When relevant, we include the reverse of paintings, the inside of vessels, problems caused by mounts, etc. For pieces where only one still photograph is required, the tape is run only for the length of time it takes to record our commentary. The second person holds the camera and reads numbers from the footage counter in the camera so that they can be written onto our list of objects. Our copy of the final survey report includes the index numbers so that the images can be retrieved easily. For our own use, we also keep written notes of condition on lists provided by museum staff. If a survey were to be done with only one conservator, a quick-witted museum staff member would be drafted for help in handling the objects.
When writing the survey reports in our own laboratory, we compile a list of objects with basic notes on condition and proposed treatments from our written notes, and then refer to the tape for further details. The use of our computer, a Macintosh, in writing these reports is vital, since the outlines of reports can be typed, and then details added as the tape is viewed or as decisions are made about treatment recommendations and costs. As with audio tape, writing a lengthy report without written notes is quite awkward and time-consuming, and would be particularly difficult without a word processor.
The tapes have proved useful long after the survey report was written, in refreshing our memories about pieces that we were preparing to treat, and on changes in condition that might have occurred between the time of the survey and the time we were asked to treat a piece. In one case, the tapes also became a possible source of comparison in a collection where insect infestation was suspected. We expect at this time to be able to specify which pieces have more flight holes since the survey was completed.
One of the main advantages of video tape is that the images are instantly available, without the time and expense of film development, choosing negatives, making prints, identifying the objects, labelling the prints, and storing them in a way that permits easy retrieval. For the same purposes, the only bookkeeping needed for video tape is a written list of the objects recorded on each cassette, and, if necessary, the index numbers noted on reports. A small cassette holds information on a large number of objects. With at least two hours of tape on a cassette and a minimum of a few seconds' scan for each object, several hundred pieces can be recorded on one tape. Although for condition and treatment photographs, and for permanence of the image, video tape is no substitute for photographic prints, for many other purposes it is a very efficient tool.
Another use of a video tape scan is to record details of the surface of large paintings. One eight-by-ten inch photograph of a large painting makes details unreadable. Taking same-scale photographs over the whole surface in order to construct a mosaic is very difficult. Scanning with the video camera is very easy. For paintings, particularly abstract ones, which are travelling, the video tape scan allows comparison with either the actual painting or with photographs of possible damage in transit. The tape helps to answer the frequent, and aggravating, question: “Was that there before?”
Other potential uses of the video camera include instant comparison of a piece or a small area of a piece before and immediately after certain treatment procedures. For example, it is sometimes helpful when filling losses in paintings or objects to have an image of the unfilled area for comparison. For outdoor sculpture or building surveys, video tape would be extremely useful. The use of video tape in educating conservators by recording treatment techniques, educating trustees about museum problems, or educating museum staff about conservation concerns could also make it a powerful propaganda tool.
In addition, it is becoming more clear that many museums lack photographic records of their collections. Although prints of individual pieces are certainly the preferred medium, video tape records can be made in very small amounts of time, with less hazard to the collections from being moved to photographic studios, heat from lights, and handling. We are currently recommending to our institutional clients that they consider creating a video tape record of their collections. For purposes of evidence in case of theft or damage, for use by curators in-house, potential borrowers, or visitor/browsers, such a tape would be extremely valuable.
We recently experimented with the use of VCR in conjunction with transmitted and reflected infrared scanning of a number of paintings.2 The results were quite successful and the process was greatly simplified over still photography.