Frozen in Time
The Rothschild Archive is not just about paper. We hold thousands of photographs, ranging from formal images created by the business to intimate family snapshots. This month’s treasure is a photograph from a large family collection recently deposited with the Archive. Over the last six months we have been cataloguing and sorting this collection, an exercise which has raised some thought-provoking issues about how we preserve memories and history.
Nathaniel de Rothschild, the son of Elie de Rothschild (1917-2007) and Baronne Liliane de Rothschild (née Fould Springer) (1916-2003) recently gifted to the Archive an important collection of photographs amassed by his grandfather Robert (1880-1946). Robert is also the grandfather of Baron Eric de Rothschild. Robert trained as a mining engineer, and played a major role in the management of the Paris House, de Rothschild Frères. During the First World War, he served as a Lieutenant, receiving two citations. His wife, Nelly (1886-1945), whom he married in 1907, nursed the wounded at Laversine, the family estate which was turned into a hospital during the hostilities. Robert shared the family's love of music and art, and experimented with early photography.
His collection of photographs is extraordinary. The images date from the early nineteenth century. Many were taken in the heat of battle of the First World War, and depict troops at rest and in action. Robert clearly played an important role, one that we are only just beginning to piece together from these images frozen in time. There are tantalising images of zeppelins and tanks on test missions, set-piece displays, parades and marches and shockingly stark images of destruction and dereliction. The collection includes many later happier images of the family, such as the image chosen here, showing Liliane de Rothschild and her sister Hélène (known as ‘Bubbles’) and their friend Aline de Gunzbourg (later Lady Berlin) on a skiing trip. Other images show members of the family posing for formal portraits, together with images showing how Robert was experimenting with photographic techniques. The format of the collection is interesting too – there are black-and-white images, negatives, single shots, rolls of film, glass-plate slides and some moving images.
The joy of ‘archiving’
We decided that our first priority would be to digitally capture the images, and then catalogue the collection, giving each item a unique reference number. Then we could begin the task of identifying what we had. Luckily many of the images had pencil notes on the back, or were in little envelopes explaining what they were, but many did not; we are still working through the painstaking process of research to identify people, places, and dates, and create a detailed catalogue. Then we had to package the collection. The different, often fragile formats require different preservation methods, and time was taken to wrap each item in acid-free paper and to pack the images securely.
Preserving our past for the future
Managing this collection forced us to think about how we manage the records of our lives. As the winter draws on, you may be looking for a project for those cold winter nights. Why not think about your personal image libraries? How many of you have boxes of old photographs and albums lurking in your attics and sheds? And even more crucially, how many of you have digital images on memory sticks, hard drives, and smartphones? Can you find images when you need them? How will you pass those images down to your children and relatives?
Photographs in albums are often the easiest to preserve. They should be kept somewhere clean, dry and not too hot and pages can be interleaved with archival-grade polyester sheets. Loose photographs should be labelled in pencil on the back with any information you think important (the date it was taken, where it was taken, who is in it) – remember that someone might be reading it in 50 years’ time so make sure it is meaningful – and kept in archival-grade polyester sleeves. You may want to scan your old photographs. Digital photographs are often at greater risk than originals. Drives get corrupted, software and hardware becomes obsolete. We recommend organising your images as you would photographs in album, with different folders for dates, subjects, people. Back them up regularly to ‘the cloud’ or different devices. Or create inexpensive hard copy ‘photo-books’ to keep precious memories safe. Remember we can read a book printed a hundred years ago, we often can’t read files burnt to a CD as recently as a couple of years ago.
The challenges of preserving digital images apply to other records too. The Rothschild Archive holds papers recording the work of the business going back to the 1780s. But records from the late 1980s are increasingly electronic; much of today’s business exists in the virtual world. In order that researchers of Rothschild history in 100 years’ time can access information, we need to be thinking now about how to capture and store the important records of our time. In partnership with the business, beginning with the records of small discrete projects and events, The Rothschild Archive is working to develop strategies to preserve the story of what we do today, for tomorrow.
More information about the photograph collections held by the Archive can be found here »