Memory, Images, History
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archives
In the general public there is the notion that archives are spaces where almost everything is saved and preserved for posterity. However, the founding of an archive is no guarantee that its contents will ultimately be saved. This tells us that while the archive exists in an idealist sense to capture both the evident and hidden meanings of our culture, through the preservation of objects and information, the reality of such institutions is more chaotic, survival much more a matter of the serendipity of time than archival management.
Some of the largest and most important film archives in the world, like the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris or George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., were founded by collectors who were cinephiles, hell-bent on collecting every scrap of film and film history. Other archives, like the Library of Congress or the Czech National Film Archive were started by enlightened governments, wishing to preserve national culture. Still others were set up as warehouses for multi-national corporations, whose mandate it is to control intellectual assets and copyrights. Moving images that have entered into these archives have gotten there more or less as a result of the whims of time, curators, donors, and government officials. Changes in administration, curators, budgets, often brings changes in acquisition policy.
The history of moving image archives thus always also includes a hidden history of what has been lost. Motion Picture companies have been notorious for “de-accessioning” their archives into the proverbial trash bin. Every collector has a story about dumpster diving for priceless movie memorabilia treasures, whether scripts, photos, or films. When I was building an archive for Universal Studios in the late 1990s, I realized that the company had sold a warehouse in New Jersey that contained the papers of Irving Thalberg, who had worked for the company for several years in the early 1920s, without bothering to remove its contents. Much of MGM’s corporate history ended up in the trash after the sale of its historical assets to Turner in the early 1980s.
But even non-profit and government archives are subject to destruction or loss. Several years ago, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan attempted to destroy that country’s national film and television archives, because they interpreted Islamic law as a ban against “images of all living things,” including any and all documentary films. In 2002, Agence France Press reported that almost 12,00 boxes of paper materials from the Cinémathèque Française were destroyed in a fire at the Bibliothèque du film, including film publicity materials, posters, photographs, and periodicals, almost all of it uncatalogued. Two disastrous nitrate film fires at the United States National Archives in Suitland, Maryland in 1977 and 1978 destroyed over a million feet of The March of Time and close to 12 million feet of Universal Newsreels, respectively. A fire at the National Film Board of Canada in July 1967 destroyed much of that institution’s illustrious production.
Every archive I have worked in keeps lists of nitrate films that have decomposed, materials that have been de-accessioned, duplicates that have been sold, traded, or just lost. Lack of funds have often been the root of the problem, hindering Archives from building proper storage facilities, hiring staff for regular inspections, beginning or completing a rigorous program copying to newer formats, whether film or digital. Indeed, budget cuts at every major American public media archive in the present economy have made certain collections inaccessible, if not lost.
History can only be created from what survives. Survival is more a matter of chance than most of us archivists would like to admit.