Boston Globe: Newport Historical Society staff races to save archive of old photographs damaged in storm-related flooding

January 11, 2024



By: Brittany Bowker, Boston Globe

A collection of more than 8,000 treasured historic photographs and negatives from the Newport Historical Society were damaged Wednesday when severe storms lead to widespread flooding across the Ocean State.

On Thursday, the photographs hung out to dry on clotheslines at the Historical Society’s Richard I. Burnham Resource Center, where many of them had been stored when the storms struck. Much of the collection was in a freezer to try to save them.

“Once the materials get wet, you freeze them when you can’t dry them all at once so they don’t mold,” said Historical Society executive director Rebecca Bertrand.

The photos are part of the Historical Society’s 500,000-photo collection, which dates back to the 1950s. The collection includes photos donated by the Newport Daily News, which capture historic community moments like Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, high school graduations, and sports events. Many of the photos from the collection are from between the 1970s and early 2000s. 

“So much of Newport’s history is in that time period,” Bertrand said.

Bertrand said the photo restoration and preservation process could take months. For now, the Historical Society is using freezers at the resource center and at the Newport Restoration Foundation. Another freezer is arriving Friday morning, Bertrand said.

Newport Historical Society staff discovered the thousands of photos underwater on Wednesday morning, and raced to save everything. The photos were stored in the basement of the building at 82 Touro St. A sump pump had failed and about three inches of water filled the lower resources center, where 20 boxes of photos and negatives by the Newport Daily News were stored, Bertrand said. 

She said on Thursday that as staff worked their way through the photographs, “it could be upwards for 20,000 total impacted photos, because there’s multiple photos on each negative strip.”

Bertrand hopes to bring in an outside team “to give us advice on how we can do a slow defrost.”

She explained that to dry the negatives, each slip has to be carefully removed from a sleeve to get the water out, then they have to be rehoused, and the photo’s caption has to be kept with it.

“And if you lose the documentary record, you lose the whole story,” Bertrand said. “It’s a long process.”

Digitizing the entire 500,000-item photographic library is a next goal for Bertrand, to “ensure permanent preservation,” she said.

The Historical Society has seen an “amazing outpouring” from the Newport community offering to help as they preserve the historic photos, Bertrand added. The Society is collecting donations to help restore their collection.

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