The Great History Freeze

In summer 2015, PMH turned to two sources for help in preserving its highly at-risk, irreplaceable historic photos: cryogenics and crowdfunding. The Great History Freeze had over 80 generous backers who contributed over $37,000 in donations. This generous funding from our supporters enabled us to move much more quickly on the monumental task of preserving these invaluable negatives. But why did we need freezers in the first place?

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Brookside Park, Pasadena, November 24, 1914. (The Flag Collection, Flag_2-61-106)
Brookside Park, Pasadena, November 24, 1914. (The Flag Collection, Flag_2-61-106)

Historic negatives from the Great History Freeze are now on view in PMH's premiere online exhibition, Frozen Frames: Preserving Pasadena's Visual Legacy. This exhibition will unfold in four parts over a year-long period, bringing artistically and historically compelling images out of the deep freeze and into public view.

Our Historic Negatives Collections

PMH maintains the area’s largest and most complete photographic archives of Pasadena and its environs, numbering an estimated one million photographic images. Staff, interns, and volunteers work tirelessly to catalog, digitize, and share the Museum’s collections, which contain well over 1,000,000 historic photographs, rare books, manuscripts, maps, architectural records, and more.  Our historic negatives collections contain irreplaceable early views of Pasadena life and industry, which are all one-of-a-kind. Two of these collections are the most in need of preservation: the collections of J. Allen Hawkins and Helen Lukens Gaut.

The over one-million photographic images in Pasadena Museum of History’s Archives are among the Museum’s most valuable resources, attracting researchers worldwide and utilized on a regular basis by local journalists, scholars, and individuals. In spite of careful preservation efforts, however, many of them are deteriorating at a rate that will destroy them completely within 20 years


Estimated cost of one freezer and associated costs: TOTAL $2,450 

This includes:

One 20 cubic ft. industrial freezer equipped with a wireless data monitor (for temperature and humidity): $1,400

Archival storage containers for one freezer: $300

Inventory and re-house approximately 16,000 negatives, per freezer: $750

Deterioration can be stopped!

Freezers = Stability:  Freezing the negatives will put them in a chemically inert state, and limit off-gassing. It is more cost-effective than scanning every negative and digitally storing them, and has the added benefit of preserving the historic artifact. This is the method currently in use by major historical museums with photographic collections.

Special Precautions:  Installing freezers to preserve our negatives is not a project that was taken on lightly. Photo conservator Gawain Weaver spent several days assessing our photograph collections and storage capabilities, and recommended installing individual freezers to preserve the Museum’s negatives.  Collections staff then spent months researching cold storage, including attending a seminar run by the Image Permanence Institute.  Members of the Museum’s Collections Committee also consulted conservators at the Getty and visited their freezer storage.

When the first freezer was installed, staff spent additional time doing “test runs” with supplies, equipment, and “test” negatives before placing any of our collections into the freezer.  When the negatives were stored in the freezer, they were first packed in archival boxes that were then wrapped in two layers of plastic bags, including a static shield bag and a polyethylene zip lock bag to create a micro environment for each box.  The freezer is equipped with 24 hour temperature and humidity data logger that collects data every minute and  is capable of alerting staff should temperature and humidity goes over the acceptable range. Click on the links below for more information on cold storage and preservation of photographic materials.

Great History Freeze logo

Project Success

Following the fundraising effort, more than 200,000 at-risk negatives, – many of them irreplaceable early views of Pasadena life and industry – were meticulously processed, repackaged, and re-housed in the Museum’s 13 new freezers. With the support of 4,000 volunteer hours, this massive, multi-year project successfully stopped deterioration of the negatives and ensured their viability for generations to come. As staff and volunteers diligently worked, we posted periodic updates on the PMH Facebook page.

How You Can Help

Just because our Kickstarter campaign is over doesn't mean that you can't still support the Museum's collections.

PMH maintains the area’s largest and most comprehensive collection of documents related to the history of Pasadena and the west San Gabriel valley. The ever-expanding collection spans the years 1834 to the present and contains well over 1,000,000 historic photographs, rare books, manuscripts, maps, architectural records, and more.  

If you would like to support the collection, you can donate online through our website, or mail a check to: Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut Street, Pasadena CA 91103.

For more information about the Great History Freeze, contact our Archives staff at