For Heritage England

The Historic England Archive

The Historic England Archive is an ever-expanding treasury of information on the ways humans have interacted with their environment – to grow food, work, celebrate and worship. It holds some 12 million items, with a hoard of on-line resources offering a chance to see pictures of towns and villages across England from the earliest days of photography.

Swindon is home to Historic England’s extraordinary archive and some 75 per cent of the archive is made up of photographs, dating back to the earliest days of the medium in the 1840s.

About 50 people work on the archive, including staff who people with their research and enquiries, and conservation specialists.

Conservation work in specialist laboratories involves an expert team tasked with repairing and conserving photographs, so they last as long as possible. Remedial work makes items as physically and chemically stable as possible. They must be usable and accessible.

There are treatments and solutions, to repair glass plate negatives, or torn prints. Some have been badly mounted or fixed with animal glues. Photographs fade and later over time as the chemicals they are made of alter or decompose. And digitising images is no guarantee of immortality. Images on CDs may only last for five years.

The storage facility is an impressive extension, spread over four floors, and capable of holding the archive at a temperature of six degrees centigrade and 32 per cent humidity. If someone wishes to see some of the precious photographs and images, the items must be stored overnight and acclimatised in stainless steel cells before being moved into a normally warm, humid environment, so they are not affected by condensation.

The facility deals with about seven thousand enquiries in a year.

“Major collections of national importance, covering archaeology, architecture, social and local history. The collections include photographs, drawings, plans and documents.”

Historic England