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The reconstruction of the Holtermann

What do you do when one of the world’s largest wet-plate glass negatives, a nineteenth century panorama of Sydney weighing over 30 kilos, smashes into hundreds of pieces?

That was the puzzle facing the State Library of NSW in 1982. The plate was one three giant glass plates created by Charles Bayliss for Bernard Holtermann in 1875.

It was part of a hoard of 3500 glass plate negatives discovered in a garden shed in Chatswood in 1951.

The find proved to be the most important photographic documentation of life during the Australian gold rush; a unique record of a generation experiencing an era of opportunity.

Almost 35 years ago, one of the giant glass negatives shattered. Attempts were made to repair the plate but no satisfactory solution was discovered.

It was boxed and put into storage. The question of how to recover it remained unanswered until now.

At the 18th Triennial Conference of the International Council of Museums - Committee for Conservation, in Copenhagen on 4-8 September 2017, a paper will be presented which explores the collaborative efforts to preserve, reassemble, recapture and rehouse the artefact.

The thickness of the trays allowed the weight of the glass to be supported without bowing, which in previous tests, had resulted in distortion patterns.
The broken 8mm glate plate is comprised of 291 identifiable glass fragments, plus additional shards, right down to powder. 

From physical rebuilding to best practice digital imaging, the reconstruction of the Holtermann plate involved four conservators and the expertise of our Digitisation and Imaging Team.

The plate was assembled into six sections on 15mm acrylic trays, thick enough to support the glass without bowing or distorting the image, and digitised using a custom built light box, lighting the glass from below. 

For capture our Digitisation and Imaging team used a 50 mega-pixel Hasselblad camera, and to maximise resolution, each of the six sections was digitised in overlapping frames, then stitched together.


Person from the Library's Collection Care reassembling the shattered Holtermann wet-plate glass negative for digitisation.
One of the six sections that was digitised in several overlapping frames to capture the incredible detail of the original negative.
The resulting image is a massive 20,000 pixels long, weighing in at about 3 gigabytes. The Library was also finally able to calculate the size of the original negative, measuring it at 151.7cm x 96.5cm, and confirm it is indeed one of the world's largest collodion glass-plate negatives.

The Library also collaborated with University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Big Global Data Technologies Centre. Using artificial intelligence mapping techniques, images from a large contact print taken before the plate was broken, replaced the areas of the negative that had been shattered. 

The resulting image is a miraculous restoration of what was thought to be lost.

Restored panorama of Sydney from the Holtermann collection.

The painstaking process, which took incredible precision, will be described in the upcoming edition of SL magazine.

Read more about the Holtermann Collection


Thanks to Anna Brooks, Lang Ngo, Nichola Parshall, Catherine Thomson, Collection Care, Bruce York, Joy Lai, Matthew Burgess and the Digitisation and Imaging Team.

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  • Holtermann Collection
  • Behind the scenes
  • Digitisation

The Journeys End

At last, the final two wet-plate glass negatives from the Holtermann Collection have been digitised. They are over a metre long (1.36m x 0.95m) and were made in 1875 from inside Holtermann's residence, known as "Holtermann's Tower" in St Leonards. The negatives display views of Sydney Harbour, Garden Island to Millers Point, from Lavender Bay. 

Horse and cart struggling through muddy street as men watch
  • History
  • In Depth

The Holtermann Collection: photographic documentation of goldfields life in Australia

In 1951, a hoard of 3,500 glass plate negatives from the nineteenth century was discovered in a garden shed in Chatswood.