Worth a Thousand Words



Minerva cleared a space on the counter and set down the metal tray containing scissors, tweezers, and a bbq lighter. The museum was applying to a grant for improving their photographic collection storage. One of the questions asked if they’d ever tested their collection for the presence for nitrate film. She was about 99.999% sure there was some in the collection, but hadn’t actually tested for it– until now. Luckily the grant didn’t require knowing what percentage of the collection was nitrate film, just if they had any at all. 

She looked at shelf after shelf of archival boxes stuffed full of paper envelopes. The envelopes were full of prints and negatives arranged by subject. Minerva frowned, shrugged, and grabbed the box marked “Automobiles”. Might as well start at the beginning. 

Minerva opened the box and fished out the two envelopes that indicated they held negatives. The first was full of contemporary, drug-store developed negatives from a car show in the 1990s. She set it aside.  The second envelope was jam-packed full of oversized negatives and had a slightly chemical vinegar smell. She leafed through them until she found a 5×7″ negative of a man standing next to an early automobile, maybe a Holman. The negative had an unusually wide margin to the left of the image. Minerva carefully trimmed off 1/4 of this edge to square up the border in line with the other 3 sides. No one would even notice its removal. 

Minerva picked up the trimmed edge with the tweezers and held it at arms length over the metal tray. She picked up the bbq lighter and clicked it on. The slightly blueish flame of the bbq lighter didn’t quite touch the negative before the whole thing flared up in a gigantic flare of yellow flame. 

“Jesus!” Minerva jerked back and the flaming bit of cellulose nitrate slipped from the tweezers and landed on the pile of negatives on the counter.  They quickly caught fire and the flames shot several feet up and caught the shelves of archival boxes on fire.