Originally from Finland, Taina Meller arrived in the United States planning to stay for a couple of years to continue her education in photo conservation. Fifteen years later, she still lives and works in Rochester, New York. She has devoted her career to working with images that she admired in the photography books that she studied when she was in school, not knowing that one day she will hold them and preserve them for others to see and enjoy as well. Meller is the Conservator in Charge at the George Eastman Museum, home of one of the most important photography collections in the world. In this interview, she talks about her career, shares a story about one of her most challenging projects as a conservator, and gives advice to those that, like her, can’t stop touching the art.
Claudia Pretelin: Taina, please talk about your background and what drew you to work in conservation?
Taina Meller: I am originally from far away Finland. Early on, I was studying photography and the history and aesthetics of it. I was drawn to historic photographic processes and soon started to explore and experiment with them. It was both tremendously exciting and liberating not to be restricted to the selection of photographic papers available. Instead, I could now go to art supply stores, which I continue to love. I would spend hours looking at, feeling (yes, touching!) and learning about the amazingly beautiful papers and their qualities. I wanted my prints to last!
At that point I had barely heard the word conservation, not to mention photograph conservation. Then, I more or less accidentally attended a lecture given by the then only photograph conservator in Finland, Riitta Koskivirta. After that lecture, I knew exactly what I wanted to be and do! I applied to a conservation school, got in, and soon was interning with the inspiring photograph conservator at The Finnish Museum of Photography.
CP: How did you transition from far away Finland to Rochester, New York?
TM: My mentor, Riitta, had spent a few years studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology, interning at the George Eastman Museum (then Eastman House) and finally working at the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) in Rochester, New York. When I graduated, she strongly encouraged me to apply to the Andrew W. Mellon funded Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at the Eastman Museum and IPI. The plan was for me to return to Finland after the two-year fellowship, but more than fifteen years later, which includes two amazing years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I am still here!
CP: What do you like the most about your job at the Eastman Museum?
TM: The museum’s amazing photography collection! When I was still studying photography, many of the textbooks had images of iconic photographs in the George Eastman Museum collection. Little did I know that one day I would have the privilege to work here and care for those very photographs! I am also blessed with wonderful colleagues, many of whom I greatly appreciate and enjoy both professionally and personally.
CP: What has been your most difficult assignment as a conservator?
TM: Not sure I can single out the most difficult assignment, but a couple of years ago my colleague Zach Long and I were working on a project that certainly was challenging. A panorama daguerreotype, photographed by William Southgate Porter in 1848 and depicting the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia, needed to be rehoused and reframed. The object consists of eight daguerreotypes under a decorative cardboard window mat. Seven of the daguerreotypes are placed next to each other composing the actual panorama, and one above them, showing the point where the panorama was photographed. Originally the daguerreotypes had been taped directly to the back of the window mat, and the window mat had been in contact with the glazing of the frame. The mounting and framing were upgraded in the late 1970s, but unfortunately were no longer providing sufficient protection.
The rehousing was challenging for a number of reasons. First, the daguerreotype plates are unevenly cut and do not have a single straight corner. Secondly, the panorama has two junctures where, for visual reasons, it is necessary to overlap the edges of the plates. For preservation reasons, our goal was to secure the plates in a primary housing that would be made of non-hygroscopic and chemically stable materials, and would allow only a minimal amount of air within it. The window mat would be placed on top of the primary housing and there would be a spacer to separate the mat from the secondary glazing, an anti-reflective acrylic. The 1970s frame was not original to the object. It was decided to replace it with one that would provide more structural support and would, style-wise, match the period of the object.
After some serious brainstorming and testing, we decided to use chemically inert plastic called polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) to hold and secure the daguerreotypes in their correct positions. For the cover glass, we chose chemically strengthened glass, found, for example, in smartphones. To add rigidity to the plate package, we decided to place a thin sheet of aluminum behind the PETG plastic backing. Lastly, we chose pressure sensitive polyester film tape with acrylic adhesive as our binding material.
CP: What should be considered when taking on such an arduous task?
TM: Documentation is a key element in ethical conservation practice. Thus, in the course of the project, the daguerreotypes were thoroughly examined, their condition compared to the previous conservation reports and photographs, and new reports written and photographs taken. It was a lot of work over a lengthy period of time, but totally worth it. The panorama is now protected, hopefully for several decades to come, and it looks gorgeous!
CP: What is one thing about conservation that you think is important for people to understand?
TM: The ultimate goal of the field is to safeguard and preserve our tangible cultural heritage, to make it accessible for generations to come. All conservation activities, such as conservation treatments, are to respect the cultural significance and the physical properties of an object, and they should at all times be performed with the least possible intervention. So, the intention is not to make an object look like it is newly made, but rather stabilize it if needed, and perhaps most importantly, provide it with a housing and an environment that supports its optimal preservation.
CP: Besides patience, what are some particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
TM: True interest and motivation, commitment to the profession. Wide knowledge of materials and technologies encountered in the creation of photographic objects. Willingness to continually learn. Good hand skills and an eye for detail.
CP: Do you have any advice for emerging conservators who are pursuing this career?
TM: Unfortunately the number of jobs available for photograph conservators is somewhat limited. However, if becoming a photograph conservator is your true calling, my advice is to follow your heart and go for it. That’s exactly what I did too, and I love it!
CP: What’s your favorite instrument of memory?
TM: My earliest memories are connected with smells: my mother’s beautiful hair, which she teased and subsequently sprayed with Elnett Satin by L’Oréal (the bottle still looks very similar to what it did back then), my grandaunt’s soft skin, which she washed with Lux bar soap only, and the sheets in my bed, which smelled different from the sheets in my parents’ bed. I would spontaneously sniff both living and nonliving things, and frequently cause embarrassing moments for grownups around me.
By now, I have learned to resist the temptation. I know better than to approach strangers just to sniff them, or to pull a moldy photograph up to my nose, should I encounter one. Yet, I have grown an extensive collection of smells, and in my mind’s eye, this collection is carefully organized, stored and safeguarded somewhere in the deepest recesses of my brain. So that I can visit it again and again and evoke memories. Those that are good, and those that are bad. Those that are joyful, and those that are painful. Memories that I do not want to fade away.
Taina Meller is the Conservator in Charge at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. After graduating from the EVTEK Institute of Art and Design in Vantaa, Finland, she worked as a photograph conservator for a number of major institutions in Helsinki, Finland, including The Finnish Museum of Photography and the Finnish National Gallery. In 2003, Ms. Meller became an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow of the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at the George Eastman Museum and the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, New York. In 2005, she became the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Sherman Fairchild Center for Works on Paper and Photographic Conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY. She returned to the George Eastman Museum in 2007 as Associate Conservator and has held her current position since 2009.