Hidden Views: Salvaging Historic Images at the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences
The Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences (BSNS) has a long, rich history of documenting people, places, global cultures, educational approaches, natural history, and the scientific world through photography. In an effort to make these images more accessible to everyone, in 2021-22 the Buffalo Museum of Science applied for and was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize and duplicate 1600 cellulose nitrate negatives that were being held in cold storage. This collection of nitrate negatives consists of a diverse array of subject matter that document the early 20th century across several academic disciplines. Included in the collection are images illustrating the history of Buffalo, the history of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences and the Buffalo Museum of Science, photographic history of Western New York, and the history of general science, natural and physical life, and culture. By making these images available as a public resource through digitization and dissemination we hope to inspire curiosity about the sciences, the humanities, and the past, and to broaden knowledge and stimulate interest in all of these fields of study.
Cellulose nitrate was first used as a base for photographic film by George Eastman in 1889 and was used for photographic and professional 35mm motion picture film until the 1950’s. American amateur and commercial still photographers used nitrate-based film most frequently between about 1908-1939, although nitrate film was available between 1889 and 1951. It has since been deemed to be both hazardous and unstable and is now designated as a Class 4.1 Flammable Solid, with special precautions for handling and storage needs. The images in the Buffalo Museum of Science’s nitrate negative collection were taken with the intent of capturing and preserving moments in time, but because of the hazardous and fragile nature of cellulose nitrate they were both at risk for loss through deterioration and inaccessible.
The Buffalo Museum of Science partnered with Chicago Albumen Works of Housatonic, Massachusetts to safely digitize the nitrate negatives. Once the digital surrogates were returned, the Museum was able to research and caption the images to add to this database.
Scope of Collection
This collection consists of approximately 1,600 images dating to the early 20th century, illustrating the history of Buffalo, the history of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences (BSNS) and the Buffalo Museum of Science (BMS), photographic history of western New York, and the history of general science, natural and physical life, and culture. The original nitrate negatives consisted of a range of sizes including 4” x 5”, 5” x 7” (the bulk of the collection) and a few 8” x 10”’s.