The 35mm crisis

The Society of Antiquaries has a newsletter, Salon. Recent editions of the newsletter have included discussions about what to do with the problem of 35mm slides, ranging from advice about how to choose which ones to throw away, to instructions on turning them into a fetching lampshade.

We don’t recommend this!

Why are 35mm slides a problem, you might ask? There are several reasons. The main one is that (almost) no-one uses them any more, so they are redundant. Attics, cellars, and the backs of wardrobes are full of them. The other is that (almost) no archaeologist has ‘just a few’ 35mm slides in their attics. They have thousands of the things. There aren’t many archaeologists who have had the time to label each and every one of their slides, so to add to the problem, they have boxes and boxes of anonymous slides whose really tiny images are very hard to make out (because who has a 35mm slide projector in their house these days? Apart from us, obviously).

One of c.60 boxes of slides at the Institute of Archaeology.  

Finally, 35mm slides were not built to last. Assuming the film hasn’t dropped out of the desiccating frame, it is highly likely to have deteriorated like this:

Caption reads “High Rocks 1957” Anyone recognize the site?

The colour can be ‘restored’ in a digital scan, as long as the image hasn’t reached the next stage of fading althogether.

Why would we want to save these thousands of 35mm slides anyway, you might ask? Everyone has holiday snaps – why are these particularly worth the time and effort of scanning?

Abbey Dore, Gloucestershire c.1972. Photo: Ellis Kirkham Waterhouse

Wait, we are talking about archaeologists here! Archaeologists don’t have ‘holidays’ (ask their children/spouses), they just have extra time to visit sites, monuments, museums, excavations, and a hole being dug in the street they couldn’t resist having a look at. Which means archaeologists’ collections are full of unique, irreplaceable, unusual views of heritage, landscapes, and excavations captured on camera at a moment in time. Archaeologists also deliberately take photographs of aspects of sites that non-archaeologists don’t usually capture:

Libya, Apollonia 1998: “Sections of aqueduct pipeline now dumped inside ancient walls”. Photo: Andrew Wilson Collection

For many archaeologists through the second half of the twentieth century, a significant proportion of their photographs of excavations and sites were recorded only on 35mm film. Archaeologists’ 35mm slides represent a valuable, endangered visual archive of excavations, sites and monuments, and in a world where heritage is increasingly under threat, the loss of this photographic evidence is surely unthinkable.

In the face of this crisis, we have extended an invitation to members of the Society of Antiquaries to share their 35mm slides with you on the HEIR platforms. We will digitize the collections at a high resolution and add them to HEIR as we go: they will be also be available for crowdsourcing on HEIRtagger – your help there will be invaluable in identifying the locations in unlabelled photographs.

Of course we will be seeking funding to help support this huge rescue mission, but in the meantime, if you believe, as we do, that 35mm slides of archaeological sites and monuments need saving, and if you think you, or your students, or anyone else, will benefit from being able to see what the world looked like through the era of the 35mm slide, please consider making a donation to HEIR by clicking on the link.

Many thanks,

The HEIR team.

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