Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Hidden Treasures: The Impact of Moving Image and Sound Archives in the 21st Century

Philip Hunter reports on the one day meeting on multimedia objects in the British Library, London, October 2002.

This conference was set up 'to consider the central importance of moving images and sound to our heritage and present-day culture, the necessity of adequate funding for the archives that preserve such materials, and asks why there is a lack of any coherent infrastructure for moving image and sound archives in the UK'.

In fact the real subtext of this conference was the race to save 100 years worth of material. Christopher Frayling (Rector, Royal College of Art) set the tone from early on with his remarks about film and film scholarship. There were lots of questions posed, including 'whose responsibility is it to preserve this material?', and 'where is the money coming from?'. Frayling has written extensively on film and media, including subjects such as Tutankhamun's reception in the 20th century, the history of the vampire concept in film, and Spaghetti westerns (he has written on cut sequences in the westerns of Sergio Leone). He used some interesting examples to illustrate the difficulty of using film sources as material for discussion. He has in the past used the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, particularly the part with the rising lions sequence. Sometimes this sequence is missing from the print. He pointed out that in the field of literature, this kind of textual corruption would make the craft untenable. It is possible to find variorum editions of Shakespeare whose pages might contain only three lines of actual text, and the rest of the page is made up with footnotes. Film scholarship is treated very casually by comparison. Frayling mentioned Murnau's famous Nosferatu - many prints in circulation show Nosferatu walking around in daylight - not tinted blue as originally intended to suggest night - and the scene is therefore incomprehensible. Another classic film which Frayling lectured on in the 1980s (didn't catch the title) has a scene in which a woman appeared, naked except for a pair of shoes. This scene was always missing in 16 millimetre prints. Someone should be looking after the definitive texts - as in Classics. Frayling was entirely unambiguous about his view that the same standards as for text should apply to film.

Frayling also looked at the process of discovery and research in film, discussing it as a user who has used archive material for books and film. He suggested (and illustrated effectively) that private collectors are an underrated resource. He mentioned one in particular who is using off-air videotapes as loft insulation, having decided to collect all Italian films produced between 1957 and 1972, including variant editions (Frayling could shed no light on why this exact period had been chosen, but seemed very grateful that the collection exists).

Frayling mentioned that the famous still photographs of Tutankhamun's tomb taken by the photographer Harry Burton were lit in a way reminiscent of Hollywood films of the period. In fact Harry Burton shot footage of the dig (some of which he was able to show). The Metropolitan Museum knew that they had some footage relating to the Tutankhamun dig, but didn't know exactly what it represented. Hence the film was not prioritised for restoration until recently.

What survives is often still around through sheer luck. There is some surviving footage shot by Lowell Thomas (the biographer of T.E. Lawrence) which was originally circulated by a travel agency ('Gamages' in fact, in the days when they supplied such a service): the surviving film is a 16 millimetre 12 reeler. Interesting in itself, its existence enabled the Imperial War museum to identify high quality 35 mm footage relevant to Lawrence, which otherwise would have languished as unimportant. This is in fact part of the footage which Lowell Thomas used to create the myth of Lawrence.

He showed a short clip of Queen Elizabeth's famous Tilbury speech from the film Fire over England, in circulation just before the beginning of WWII. This showed squadrons of aircraft over the English Channel - a strange inclusion in a film about the Spanish Armada, though it was obviously shot to make concrete the parallel with the imminent struggle. He asked: was it ever there in the circulated print? The real challenge is to establish the versions of film we are working from. This is a challenge both to snobbery (films are not important) and to an industry chasing quick profits. At the end of his presentation, a representative from an archive in the North of England reported that they had a print of Fire over England with the squadrons of aircraft included (I'm sure that I saw a print of this film including the aircraft myself about twenty years ago on a regional television channel).

In summary, the business of disinterring hidden treasures is a double-edged sword. Most effort goes into just making stuff available. But new discoveries are more likely to be made in a film (and sound) area (where things can be compared, as they can in a library or archive). Frayling argued that archives should be involved in the creation of a national strategy – including deciding 'who does what'. To talk seriously about resources, and to establish connections with print archives. There should be a national debate. The idea of regional archives was a new idea 20 years ago - now there is a network of them. The use of these archives is as a source of material illustrating life in all its aspects, so the provision for archiving ought to be obvious. He pointed out that the idea of making archives of film authoritative is not new, and in fact can be traced back to 1898.

James Patterson, Director, Media Archive for Central England, looked at current UK provision of moving image and sound, and asked: how are UK archives doing? If we’ve made progress, what are the barriers? And what are we going to do about it? In general we talk of public sector archives, but, as indicated, private stuff is just as important. He announced that Resource is funding work which will result in the 1st published strategy. [1] He noted that the 'Public Good' is a main driver in public moving image archives. Currently we are engaged in a mapping exercise. And regional bodies help to develop a sense of place. He observed that the BFI collection was first developed in 1935 - this means that the whole era of silent film had passed by: archives are always playing ‘catchup’. Financial imperatives comprise a major barrier to development (at all levels). But, collections have to be developed, otherwise there is nothing to unlock. How are we doing in general? We’re late but excellent core work which has been carried out, and the foundation has been laid for a hugely important public resource. This requires recognition of the archival value of the materials, and we are close to this now. We need the strategic vision to move us all forward – this conference marks the beginning of this process. We need to think of distributed collections and develop the appropriate mindset.

Other speakers included Crispin Jewitt, who gave the view from the British Library National Sound Archive. He gave an outline of the history of recorded sound, in order to give context to the kind of material which is available with existing provision in the UK. Surprisingly, it seems to have first got off the ground for academic field research (folk music, anthropological recording and linguistics). The convergence of digital technologies means there is now a blurring of media boundaries. There is a surprising richness of content, which he illustrated with some well chosen clips. One in particular will have interested those in the audience interested in authenticity issues: Chopin’s minute waltz recorded in 1905 by a pupil of Chopin. One might expect that, being much closer in time to Chopin, and to the playing tradition of Chopin's period, as well as being performed by a pupil of the master, that it would represent a more authentic performance (I've always felt that Chopin today is played far too fast, for example) - in fact, not only does it sound quite unlike any performance of the minute waltz you have ever heard, it sounds as though the performer was making it up as he was going along. How authentic is that?

On the institutional front, Jewitt's view was that there is little coherent public strategy. Users of sound and audio-visual archives are often metropolitan focussed (for broadcasting). There is strength in existing provision (he engaged in a brief survey of archives). He noted gaps and shortfalls, and inadequate institutional structures, and that there is a lost heritage because of this. He made the important point that 'stuff which may be reused, is liable to be preserved over stuff of intrinsic worth'.The way forward might be via a co-ordination of strategy and an engagement with existing cross-sectoral developments. Also through the clarification of the interface with arts and broadcasting sections.

The afternoon session looked at practical issues and examples of moving image and sound activities. These presentations included those by BeMe (Black & Ethnic Minority Experience), the Project to bring football films to the local community in Nottingham, Full Circle Arts/North West Film Archive’s ‘Can I Hear That in Colour?’ project, Black History Month, Mental Health Media, and the NIFTC’s Digital Film Archive

Joan Bakewell (British Film Institute) spoke of the huge amount of material threatening to overwhelm. Formats multiply, and we feel the need to migrate. BFI is conscious that we need to set up strategic approach to video and sound in the UK, and that we want to be a part of it. Rights - these are third party largely ('we are ‘custodians,’ not owners'). On preservation she mentioned that the BFI has around 107 million feet of film in its archive. They have about 38 thousand films to stabilise, and around 100 thousand to catalogue. We need to settle on a format for access. The BFI wants to be part of the strategy, and the technology has to help us here, to manage and share the collections. We need more access initiatives, and to exploit core competences.

Mark Wood (substituting for the Chair of Resource, Matthew Evans) said that the description of Resource is based on the assumption of common challenges among museums, libraries and archives. Resource is setting up an archives task force, essentially to undertake a mapping exercise of what is identifiable and accessible [1]. For example ITV has about 300,000 hours of newsclips (from the 1890s onwards) - at 16 hours a day it would take about 51 years to watch all of it. He argued that we need common digital mappings and frameworks.

Liz Forgan (Chair, Heritage Lottery Fund) applauded the creation of the Digital Preservation Coalition. It isn't just preservation matters which makes treasures hidden - copyright is another issue which takes material out of reach. The Heritage Lottery Fund supports important projects but wants to see the bigger picture: a national strategy is required for this. She welcomed the announcement that such a strategy would be developed. and said that the HLF will support it financially in order to better pursue their own. She pointed out that the HLF grant programme has been simplified. She closed her remarks by observing that the conference marks a milestone in learning how to hand on this part of our cultural heritage.

Derek Law (University of Strathclyde and Director of the Centre for Digital Library Research) spoke on 'access & metadata' (the word 'metadata' had not been much in evidence earlier in the day). Some users (he said) relate to archivists like jailers. This is because it is difficult to get clips of anything. We need to sort out access - getting funding for digitisation is not so much of a problem. We need to consider metadata and sustainability - and staffing.

He felt he was contributing a dose of cold water to the conference. He explained why the Higher Education community doesn't use multimedia to any significant extent (the community spends - according to his figures - one two-thousandth of one per cent on multimedia). It's a priority question - it is just too hard to get hold of these resources. HE has done well however with the Technical Advisory Service on Images (TASI). He asked why it was that we don't have more sites in the UK like the Library of Congress's 'Memory of America'? Fair dealing = stealing? IPR issues should be resolved for HE. Stills are ok. Sound clips are ok, but it is difficult to get video. And the metadata is now much better.

As far as content is concerned, there aren't that many good clips around. The community wants clips, not whole films. Finding aids are also a problem. The BUFVC Researchers guide is free in the ac.uk domain, so it can't be accessed online outside the network. We (as a community) want instant access. In the HE community we also need to address systems obstacles. There are too many formats; standard software is a problem, as is the general absence of metadata (how can you search across these resources otherwise?). There are physical problems too. Underinvestment. Plus, it is just too complicated. Without metadata, we can't decide what is relevant to our requirements. And we want it now. He concluded by pointing out that HE requires a solution which has to work with the Microsoft platform with an academic license.


[1] The purpose of the Strategy is to:

*produce a document for audiovisual archival development across the UK
*provide information on the strengths and weaknesses of audiovisual archival provision across the UK
*recognise the important strategic benefits to be gained from the audiovisual sector working closely with the wider museums, libraries and archives sector
*do the above within the broader context of changing national and regional policy making and structures
*inform public and private funding bodies on the priorities for capital and revenue investment in audiovisual archives sector

The completed strategy will be launched in London in June 2003.

Author Details

 Philip Hunter
Editor of Ariadne
University of Bath

Email: p.j.hunter@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/