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Memento : Issue 25
January 2004 MEMENTO 15 Many people don't realise that cine film and any negative still film with an acetate base -- so-called 'safety film' -- can be just as vulnerable to deterioration as the nitrate film it replaced in the late 1940s. While not as volatile as nitrate stock, acetate film has its preservation challenges. If the film is poorly stored, particularly in a warm and humid climate for a long time, water molecules can permeate the acetate base and acetic acid (vinegar) is formed. From that point the film begins to deteriorate and eventually the image becomes distorted and fades as the film shrinks and the emulsion cracks. Once it starts, the process is unstoppable. The other danger is that the acetic acid vapour released by the affected film can contaminate other film stored nearby. The only way to save the affected film is to copy it either onto a stable polyester based film stock or into a digital medium. But copying such a large collection as ours is expensive and time consuming. In the meantime, the affected film needs to be isolated in a cold, dry stable environment, to halt the deterioration process and prevent contamination of other film. This measure also allows us the time to evaluate the film and put a copying program in place. To address the vinegar syndrome problem, we are building a new isolation vault in Sydney for affected film. This million-dollar vault, made possible by special preservation funding from the Australian Government, will store more than 40,000 film cans and a large quantity of boxes of still negatives. Climatic conditions inside the vault will be set at 8ºC and 30 per cent relative humidity. We estimate the vault will give us five to ten years to program the copying of affected cine and still film stock in our collection. So pretty soon if you're having fish and chips in our Sydney office, you'll have to bring your own vinegar! Visitors to our film vault in Sydney are often asked: 'Have you brought the fish and chips?' Once inside the door they quickly get the quip, as a pervading vinegar smell signals the presence of 'vinegar syndrome' in the film collection. Saved by the vault! A photograph affected by vinegar syndrome, before and after digital editing. NAA: A1200, L26848