Project Focus: Hidden Gems in Photography Collections

Two early hand painted Ambrotypes which showed up at the St Andrews public day. Brought in by Rachel Hart


Photographic collections exist in nearly every library, archive and museum across Scotland; however they remain hidden away and are often unseen for years. Funding supplied by Museums Galleries Scotland and Historic Scotland, the Institute for Conservation (Scotland Group) has sent three photographic experts from the University of St Andrews on a training tour around the country over the summer. The purpose of this expedition was to invite heritage professionals and the general public to learn about the photographic gems they may have tucked away. Rachel Nordstrom, Photographic Collections Manager at The University of St Andrews, tells us more about the project. 

Workshops where held for heritage staff and volunteers at: Lochaber Archive Centre in Fort William , Aberdeen Maritime Museum, Brora Community Learning Centre, and University of St Andrews Library over a ten day period in late-June and early-July. The day long courses were led by two members of the Special Collections staff – myself, Rachel Nordstrom, and my colleague Edward Martin, along with Kirke Kook, a student entering the final year of her MLitt in Photographic History at St Andrews. We discussed the history of photography; how to identify historic processes and formats; various digitisation and cataloguing methods; handling tips and general preservation and storage best practice.

Over the course of the week there were 49 participants representing 37 institutions from across Scotland. Each delegate received course packs with further literature from the field to help bolster the information delivered during the seminar as well as a preservation materials sample pack donated by Preservation Equipment Limited.

Some delegates hardly knew where to start accessing their photographic collections, while others were well on their way through fantastic digitisation and cataloguing projects. The spectrum of participants made for a myriad of wonderful and fruitful discussions.


The workshops were followed up by a second day of public engagement with the local community in each venue. This follow-on event took various forms, from a talk on the importance of Scotland in the birth of photography, to a mini exhibition of old photographs and cameras, to a conservation seminar and discussion. Visitors brought in not only fine examples of some of the earlies photographic processes (ambrotypes, tintypes, glass plate negatives and hand-coloured prints), but also stories of where the photos came from and who the subjects were. Visitors included descendants of professional photographers, nobility and global travellers. The majority of visitors asked about how to keep their relics in good condition for future generations.

Much discussion followed both the workshop day for heritage professionals and the public engagement day regarding other upcoming workshops offered by both Museums Galleries Scotland and ICON-Scotland. Having seen just a taster of the fascinating collections tucked away around Scotland, and getting a feel for the enthusiasm from those working with these collections, I look forward to seeing what comes out of future projects and seminars.

Rachel Nordstrom is Photographic Collections Manager at The University of St Andrews

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the review Kelly.. The workshop seems to be quite interesting for photography enthusiasts. Vintage photography collections found in famous museums all across the globe such as the Museum of Photographic history and the London’s photographic galleries can also beguile vintage lovers.

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