Part of Spokane history was erased Wednesday in a small fire that consumed about 700 historical images in the basement of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
The images, taken by prolific Spokane photographer Charles A. Libby or his son in the early part of the 20th century, were in a cold storage area in the museum’s basement. Libby operated a photography studio in Spokane for 60 years starting in 1901.
“Most of the photographs, it turns out, were not ever copied, so they’re lost,” said Bruce Eldredge, the museum’s chief executive officer. The burned images represent only a small piece of the Libby collection, which the MAC obtained in 1987 and includes between 100,000 and 150,000 negatives.
“They’re extremely significant for the history of our region,” said Larry Schoonover, director of exhibits and programs. “It’s hard to find something related to the history of Spokane that Libby and his son didn’t photograph.”
Spokane Fire Battalion Chief Ken Kirsch said it appears that the storage unit where the fire occurred was not working properly, which may have allowed the nitrate-based film to spontaneously combust. The cause of the fire, however, remains under investigation.
Sprinklers doused flames before firefighters arrived about 2:30 p.m. Schoonover said negatives are in plastic bags, which should protect remaining images from water damage.
The museum has copied thousands of Libby images, Eldredge said, but not all of them because of the time and expense involved. It costs $10 to $20 to properly copy each image, he said.
The museum was evacuated because firefighters were concerned about acid released by the film. Eldredge said late Wednesday that testing has indicated air in the museum is safe, and it should open for regular business today.