The magic of the lantern

Slide 9 from The Miner’s Rescue (W. Rider & Co), Hecht Collection, Screen Archive South East, from the Lucerna database

Time may move in a straight line, but history does not. Despite the beliefs of the more traditional writers of history, particular themes seldom roll out as a succession of sequential events leading to a satisfactory conclusion. Film, or media history, for example, is not a case of one innovation neatly being followed by another, then another, leading to the media world with which we are familiar today. There are overlaps, reverses, diversions, false trails, parallel actions, missed opportunities, and all manner of divergent yet interconnected narratives. So, the historical argument that says there were optical toys, magic lanterns, chronophotographs and such like (bundled up in neat teleological fashion as ‘pre-cinema’), which were then followed by the cinema, the goal towards which so-called pre-cinema was inexorably aiming, is, quite simply, a-historical.

This we can see with the magic lantern, whose history has been opened up as never before by the publication of the Lucerna database, a new resource of some significance. Launched yesterday at the Screen Culture and the Social Question: Poverty on Screen 1880-1914 conference in London, Lucerna is an online database and information resource for the magic lantern. Magic lanterns are generally thought of as Victorian entertainments which prefigured the cinema. One of the things that Lucerna makes very clear is how the lantern did not die out once the cinema arrived, but that the two media co-existed for many years, with showmen employing both, production companies and distributors supplying both, and journals (such as The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, which lasted under that name until 1917) serving both. To understand early cinema, we need to understand the magic lantern too.

Lucerna is dedicated to the history of the lantern, in all its forms, reflecting its many relationships with social, political, religious, entertainment and cinema history. As the site says:

For more than 350 years the magic lantern has represented and fed into every aspect of human life and every part of the world. It is still used today, both in its original form and through direct descendants like the modern data projector.

The centrepiece of Lucerna is a database of slide sets, individual slide images, readings and other texts related to slide sets, lantern hardware, people and organisations involved in lantern history, locations associated with lantern production, and events. There is at present information on 6,332 slide sets (i.e. a set of images relating a particular narrative), 26,475 individual slides, 3,687 people and 1,366 organisations connected with lantern history. Many of the records are illustrated with slides from public and private collections, and browsing through the Slides and Slide Sets options is a marvellous way of viewing the preoccupations, beliefs and diversions of Victorian and Edwardian society (the slides available so far are predominantly British, though the lantern was of course a worldwide phenomenon).

Complete life model slide set for Beware!; or, The Effects of Gambling (Bamforth, 1893)

Lucerna does not have a single search option. Instead you are offered nine search options: slide sets, slides, people, organisations, events, locations, hardware, texts and keywords. Each offers a range of search parameters; Slide Sets, for example, lets you refine your search by country, manufacturer (with drop down menu for every manufacturer listed – indeed every search field under every option has a drop-down menu, so you never have to select any name or term at random), type of slide subject, type of image, date, and series title. Results can be ordered by title, date or series order, and crucially you can search under slide sets for those where there are images available, which is what most users of the site are going to want to do. Unfortunately you don’t seem to be able to do this for individual (‘orphan’) slides. Each individual record (and there ae tens of thousands of them) very usefully comes with a unique Lucerna ID number.

The best thing to do is to jump in at any point and start browsing, because such is the depth of hyperlinking that you are led inexorably from page to page, following themes, places or people as you construct your personal journey through lantern history. It soon becomes clear that this is a bit beyond your average database. It’s not obsessive as such, but it’s certainly in thrall to the richness of its subject. Person entries include not just birth/death dates and occupation, but references to census records and other archive sources, associated slides or texts, locations associated with them, businesses associated with them, literature references – and all of this with hyperlinks to everything mentioned. So, I find at random the record for Charles Acres, a partner in a slide painting business, and see that he was born in Islington. There’s a hyperlink – and lo I find there are seventeen lantern people associated with Islington (14 born there, 3 died there), one business located there, and one entry which reports on a lantern show which tooks place there, organised by the Sunday School Union. Click on that, and a huge list of events appears, all of them hyperlinked and described. And so the adventure continues.

(One searching tip – don’t hit the ‘go’ option on any search page without having put in at least one search term. Failing to do so appears to set the database into endless searching mode)

Slides from a 1911 Bamforth set to accompany the song ‘Are there any little angels blind like me?’

Themes that will soon become apparent are family, religion, the sufferings of the poor, temperance, war, empire, humour, gambling, travel, crime, patriotism, morality, romance, the supernatural and travel. Many are sentimental, and lead you to think how much audiences of the time were swayed by such images. Most tell stories of one kind or another, or illustrate songs with visual narrative, and the parallels with early films, in subject and tone, is immediately noticeable. Some slide sets, such as Ora Pro Nobis or Ostler Joe (each based on poems), later became films, and one sees not separate media histories, but rather the way in which a society wanted to see stories told, and the means that then developed technologically to make this happen.

A triunial or triple lantern (W.C. Hughes, 1880s)

Lucerna has been developed by the Universität Trier in Germany; Screen Archive South East, University of Brighton, UK; the Magic Lantern Society, UK; and Indiana University in the USA. However it is predominantly the work of one man, both in its programming and in the population of data, Richard Crangle, to whom the lantern world in particular and anyone in general at all interested in sceen culture and the worlds that screens depict should be hugely grateful. Crangle has set out not simply to display lantern images (as many other sites do), but to present the lantern in its many contexts, rigorously described, as a research resource. The ambition of the site is to encourage lantern enthusiasts to share their collections and knowledge, which they can do openly or anonyously as they wish, by signing up to the site and contributing information or images. So Lucerna is meant to be a collective, Wikipedia-like endeavour, and one hopes very much that it is able to be developed along such co-operative means.

If Lucerna whets your appetite for more information on the magic lantern (which it is bound to do), then here are a few links to encourage you to explore further:

  • The Magic Lantern Society – much information, well-illustrated, on lantern history, lanterns and slides
  • The Projection Box – distributors of Magic Lantern Society publications, including the indispensible Encylopedia of the Magic Lantern
  • Screening the Poor 1888-1914 – a double-DVD of early films and magic lantern slide sets on the theme of poverty, available from Edition Filmmuseum (reviewed by the Bioscope here)
  • Laterna Magica – Magic Lantern vol. 1 – a bi-lingual (English/German) illustrated history of the lantern in the 17th and 18th centuries, by Deac Rossell
  • Visual Media – heavily illustrated site by Thomas Weyants on ‘pre-cinema’ visual media, including magic lanterns, phantasmagoria, optical toys etc.
  • Museo del Precinema – Italian museum with extensive lantern resources, home of the Minici Zotti collection
  • Magic-Lantern.eu – large Dutch collection of lantern slides and equipment, handsomely illustrated

Lucerna is still in its early days, with the eventual aim of becoming the single definitive and comprehensive illustrated resource for the magic lantern. If enough of the lantern community join in and help Richard Crangle in his stupendous task, it may become so. But Lucerna is not just for the lantern specialist. The hope is to bring the lantern back into general consciousness, and to reintroduce it into those histories of screens, society, art, leisure, politics, religion and culture, where it most certainly belongs.

Go explore.

Cinema context, once more

The Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam in 1934, from Cinema Context

In the very early days of the Bioscope, when its total readership could probably have been fitted into a broom cupboard with some comfort, we reviewed Cinema Context, one of the leading film-related resources anywhere. Four years on, the broom cupboard has expanded somewhat, and it’s time we returned the resource, and devoted more attention to it. So let’s do so.

Cinema Context is a database of Dutch film culture. There’s something about the Netherlands that makes it just about the right size for a country when it comes to apportioning things (geographically, demographically, economically), and it’s the case when it comes to film databases. At the heart of Cinema Context is data on all of the Dutch cinemas, including travelling cinemas, that have existed since 1900 – there are 1,615 of them – and so far as I know the Netherlands it the only country to have comprehensively documented its every single film venue. The venues have then been mapped to almost every film shown in a Dutch cinema up to 1960 (45,582 of them), so that one knows not only what was shown, but when it was shown, and where. This information has been taken from a wide variety of film programme information, from which data has been added on musicians, live performers, entry prices and more. There is a whole range of people (4,259) and companies (1,611) listed, from cinema managers to distributors, so one does really get a sense of the depth and extent of Dutch film culture. It is, by the way, a bi-lingual site – Dutch and English.

What Cinema Context does not provide is much in the way of filmographic detail, but it does link every identifiable film to its record on the Internet Movie Database, so it is possible for the dedicated researcher to trace not only which films but which performers very popular in which part of the country, and how such presence changed over time and territory. The site does not exist to give you every answer, but rather to provide a solid basis on which to go looking for answers.

There are simple and advanced search options. The latter invites you to search across five categories: films, cinemas, programmes, people and companies. Under programmes, you can search for programmes showing more than one film, those from travelling cinemas only, and search within particular dates. So, for example, if I look up Alex Benner’s Bioscope, a travelling cinema which appeared at a fair near the town of Roosendal on 24 December 1911, I get its position on a Google map, a list of the films shown (all hyperlinked to their own page and ultimately the IMDb) and a listing of the archival resources used. And the films are (with their Dutch release titles, though there is cross-referencing to original titles):

Kabeljauwvangst op IJsland
De gelofte
Het interessante artikel in de courant
De jonge circusrijders
De meloenen op hol
Door eigen kracht zijn eer gered
Het witte costuum van Nauke
Wil het mij vergeven
Max gaat hoepelen

There’s a browsing option, which is probably the best way into the resource. Here you can look across cinemas by year or by city; films by country, year, title (original or Dutch); by company (exhibitors or distributors, but not production companies); by people (name or function); and by censorship rating, year or file number. This latter element is an exciting development. Every film record between 1928 and 1960 on Cinema Context has been cross-linked to the record of its file from the Netherlands Board of Film Censors, as held by the Nationaal Archief in the Hague. It does just point you to a catalogue entry rather than a digitised document or transcript, but let’s not be greedy. Cinema Context remains a work in progress, and is keen to grow further. Such additional features will be added in time.

And there’s more. The site offers some useful statistics, such as cinema attendances and film production year by year in the Netherlands and selected cities, a listing of all Dutch film magazines, and a map of the country which links you to cinemas on the database.

Back in 2007 I wrote:

What is the finest film reference source on the Web, for all film let alone silent film? With all due respect to the Internet Movie Database, I think it is Cinema Context, a Dutch site created by Karel Dibbets and the University of Amsterdam.

I think I still stand by that, though it may now share first place with Germany’s Filmportal, while resources produced since 2007, notably the University of North Carolina’s more localised and more specialised Going to the Show, demonstrate how to take this sort of data to the next level through the new search tools that are now available. And I see no reason to change my original summing up of the resource: “This is the new film research. Every nation should have the same”.

I don’t know the degree to which these databases of cinemas rather than films have succeeded in opening up cinema history to social and cultural historians in general, and not just a film studies audience, but that has to be the intention. Resources such as Cinema Context must exist to facilitate the fundamental question that should be asked of film history, which is how it related to society. My feeling is that such databases – other examples are the London Project, the Scottish Cinemas and Theatres Project, the Utrecht Project, and the huge American site Cinema Treasures – still direct themselves primarily towards an audience which understands film culture first and foremost. They may seek to answer new questions, but it is unclear if they are sufficiently reaching out to those who are asking those questions. It is when Cinema Context or the London Project map themselves to population figures, transportation data, domestic expenditure, or the competition from alternative attractions, that we may really start to compute the historical position of cinema in society.

Archive fever

http://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid

Time for another research resource, and this looks like a major one. ArchiveGrid, still in beta form, aims to be a gateway to the world’s archives. It has been created by OCLC, the library organisation behind WorldCat (“the world’s largest library catalog”). Much as WorldCat turns the catalogues of the world’s libraries into one giant catalogue, so ArchiveGrid wants to become the single place from which the researcher may discover anything held in an archive, anywhere.

OK, so it’s some way off such an ambition just yet, being largely composed of American archives, and they are collection descriptions rather than individual items (I think we’re going to have a long wait for that to happen). Each record gives you the name of the contributing institution, the title of the particular collection (each institution may have several collections, of course), the collection description, contact details (a link to the institution’s website), and catalogue record (including unique OCLC identifier) or finding aid. Searches can be narrowed by institution or location, there is a selection of topics to guide you through the collections. And by typing in your postal code you can see on a Google map which participating archives are in your area.

So, what can we find on silent films? The answer is plenty. Our standard test term, ‘kinetoscope’, brings up the Raff and Gammon papers at Harvard University – Baker Library, a typescript study of Thomas Edison by Rose Lombard in Harvard University – Theodore Roosevelt Collection, and the Library of Congress’ Inventing Entertainment website, which Pennsylvania State University Libraries has cited as a resource. ‘Cinematograph’ produces 38 hits, from the Paul Rotha papers at UCLA to the United Artists Corporation Records at Wisconsin Historical Society Library and Archives. ‘Silent film’ brings up 260 records: examples include the silent film music collection at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Lillian Gish papers at Bowling Green State University – Center for Archival Collections; and the Cecil B. DeMille Archives at Brigham Young University – L. Tom Perry Special Collections.

Much of this sort of information has been available in printed directories, but not, I think, in so extensive and freely available an online resource as this (ArchiveGrid has had an earlier existence as a subscription service, which didn’t get enough subscribers). Clearly it is a huge boon for research of every kind. It is mostly written archives, but not exclusively so; while some of the archival objects might be more naturally classified as books, so that you wonder how WorldCat and ArchiveGrid might be brought together in some way, at some glorious future point.

There are other directories of archives out there. UK researchers should be familiar with the National Archives’ National Register of Archives and the Access 2 Archives search resource, but perhaps not all know the university archives service Archives Hub, or AIM25 for archives in the London area. We have previously higlighted the Canadian Discovery Portal, and sung the praises of Australia’s Trove portal. Regrettably the UNESCO Archives Portal for archives worldwide is no longer accessible online.

New to me is Archives Portal Europe, a pilot service for opening up European archives, which doesn’t appear to have a great deal on film, and what can be found seems eccentric or marginal, though its multilingual nature is likely to hiding more than I realise (try the search terms ‘cinema’ or ‘kino’ for an idea of the range of content).

Directories of film archives are another matter, and should be the subject of another post. Meanwhile ArchiveGrid is a particularly exciting development, and likely to spark off plenty of new research projects. Go explore.

European Film Gateway

Carl Dreyer’s Der Var Engang (1922), available in extract form via the European Film Gateway

And so, after reporting for the past two days on a symposium on film archives in the digital age held to mark the launch of the European Film Gateway, it’s time to introduce the Gateway itself.

The European Film Gateway, or EFG, is a European Union-funded intiative which aims to provide a gateway to European film heritage in digital form. The EFG doesn’t hold any such digital content itself, nor has it paid for for any films or other artefacts to be digitised to serve the EFG. It simply points to content that is already out there, on the websites of individual archives, bringing scattered information into one place for the benefit of you and me.

There are sixteen contributing archives (along with other partners), though fourteen are currently listed on the site: Cinecittà Luce (Rome), Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema (Lisbon), Det Danske Filminstitut (Copenhagen), Deutsches Filminstitut – DIF e.V. (Frankfurt), EYE Film Instituut Nederland (Amsterdam), Filmarchiv Austria (Vienna), Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen arkisto (Helsinki), La Cinémathèque française (Paris), Lichtspiel – Kinemathek Bern (Berne), Lietuvos Centrinis Valstybės Archyvas (Vilnius), Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum (Budapest), Národní filmový archiv (Prague), Nasjonalbiblioteket (Oslo), Tainiothiki tis Ellados (Athens). Not quite every member state of the European Union is represented, and the UK is conspicuous by its absence, though I understand that the Imperial War Museum will be contributing at a further stage in the EFG’s development. The leading contributors so far are Italy’s Archivio Luce, the Danish Film Archive, and the Deutsches Filminstitut.

What you get is, as of this moment, access to 391,229 digital objects, compising 23,390 videos, 357,452 images and 10,387 texts. Films are primarily non-fiction (newsreels, documentaries etc), but some fiction films can be found; the extensive range of images covers a extensive range of cinema history (most names that I typed in brought up something); and the documents include newspaper cuttings, scripts, censorship records, digitised books and so on.

Searching is a bit on the basic side. There is no advance search option, so there is no way that I’ve been able to discover that lets you search every film dating before 1930, for example, or all the documents from one particular archive. However, once you have searched for something, there are opportunities to refine your search by archive, medium, date period, or language, so it’s best to search for something, then explore the records thereafter. Frustratingly there is no option to refine searches by genre (say if you wanted to find fiction films only).

However, you can play a trick on the Gateway by searching for “a”, which brings up just about every record. Refining this by film as medium and dates 1900-1929 reveals that there are at least 687 films from the silent period available to view. These include 524 from Det Danske Filminstitut, 91 from Luce, 38 from Tainiothiki tis Ellados, 20 from Filmarchiv Austria, 12 from Národní filmový archiv, and 2 from Lichtspiel – Kinemathek Bern. All of these films can be found on their respective archives’ websites, some in extract form only. Do note that, though most of the site in English, you will be confronted with Greek, Czech or other foreign language only sections of the site.

Search results on the EFG for ‘Asta Nielsen’

Many of the films and other digital objects are gathered in to collections, which usefully you are allowed to browse. Here are the descriptions from the EFG of some of the collections that relate to our area of silent film:

Cinecittà Luce: Documentary and Short Film Collection 1920-1990
3,000 items from a unique collection of cinematographic non-fiction and fiction works, since the silent film era to our days, black and white and colored, short and long, featuring titles of different topics from history to culture, by a myriad of directors, including, among them the first works of great masters like Rossellini, Antonioni, Comencini, De Seta, and other famous names of Italian filmmaking.

Det Danske Filminstitut: Early Documentary and Fiction Films and Trailers
The collection of the Danish Film Institute available on EFG contains a number of early documentary films, which display the life and look of the Danish society in the period of 1906 to 1940. Among the 300 films are straight depictions of modern production equipment and trade, as well as more propagandistic titles and news items. The over 50 early fiction films available are a raw collection of short films that give an impression of what early audiences were entertained by. In addition, around 700 teaser previews of the films available in the Danish Film Institute’s educational distribution can be found on EFG. The latter collection contains current films that are chosen mainly for their value in education and general audience informative qualities.

Det Danske Filminstitut: The Films by Cinema Pioneer Peter Elfelt
The 77 films by Danish cinema pioneer Peter Elfelt (1866-1931) are not only interesting from a cinematic point of view but they are also unique contemporary documents. As royal court photographer, Elfelt had access to the most important people and events at his time, which is reflected by his films, focusing on Denmark’s high society.

Deutsches Filminstitut: Costume and Set Designers’ Collections
More than 200 set designs and 900 film costume designs, sketches and notes by distinguished German (film) architects Otto Hunte, Walter Reimann and Hans Poelzig and costume designers such as Ali Hubert, Helga Kischkat-Reuter and Irms Pauli can now be accessed via the EFG. Many of the design sketches represent milestones in their field, e.g. the set designs for “Metropolis” (1925/26) or “Der Golem wie er in die Welt kam” (1920).

La Cinémathèque française: Magic Lantern Slides Collection
The Cinémathèque française’s collection of magic lantern slides illustrates the pre-cinema era and contains some of the finest and most well-preserved slides still in existence. A selection of around 1,500 of these hand-painted and photographic unique artworks from France, Great Britain, Germany and the USA covering the 18th century until the 1920s is available on EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: Photos of the Triangle Film Corporation
The Triangle Film Corporation existed from 1915 to 1918. Employing directors such as D.W. Griffiths, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennet it was on of the largest American production companies at its time. By means of around 1,400 photos of the John E. Allen – Triangle Collection, the history of the company can be retraced.

La Cinémathèque française: The Digital Library Collection
La Cinémathèque française has a precious book collection which retraces the long adventure of the prehistory of the cinema and photographic and film techniques. The approximately 280 books of this collection date back to the 17th century and can be found on EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: The Étienne-Jules Marey Collection
The scientist Étienne-Jules Marey (1830 – 1904) used photographic methods to study the movement of human and animal throughout his life. La cinémathèque offers access to around 400 photos from the estate of Étienne-Jules Marey via EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: The Muybridge Collection
With the serialisation of photos Eadward Muybridge was one of the first who created the impression of moving images. EFG gives access to about 700 images that emanate from the estate of Muybridge.

Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum: Photo Collection
The selection of around 1,000 film stills covers the period from the beginnings of Hungarian cinema to 1947 and includes early films of world famous directors such as Alexander Korda and Michael Curtiz.

Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum: Poster Collection
Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum contributes aprox. 1,200 film posters, which provide an overview of the Hungarian poster art from the beginnings of Hungarian cinema in 1900 to the 1990s.

Národní filmový archiv: Documentary and Feature Films
The National Czech Film Archive makes eight feature films from the Czech silent film era from 1898 to 1920 available via EFG. An overview of the history of the Czech documentary film provides the collection “Czech Documentary Films”. Up to 200 films from 1898 to 1928 can be viewed on EFG.

Nasjonalbiblioteket: Selected Films
For EFG the Nasjonalbiblioteket gives access to a selection of approx. 350 film works, many of them representing Norwegian cinema from 1900 to 1935. The collection also includes historic advertising films from the 1920s to the 1950s as well as documentary films about Oslo.

Not every film included on the EFG falls into one of these collections (for example, the coy early sex films of Austrian production company Saturn), and as is so often the case with these sorts of resources it helps if you know what you are looking for is going to be there somewhere, because the searching tools don’t always help you completely. But it must be pointed out that the EFG is in a beta phase, with plenty of bugs let to be ironed out. Better functionality, and more content (including some arriving in August) are promised.

The EFG is essentially a feeder site for the European digital library concept, Europeana, previously written about on the Bioscope. There the films and film-related content will be searchable alongside many other kinds of digital objects (the EFG content does not appear to be on Europeana as yet). The EFG has a sister project, EU Screen, which is doing the same job for European television content (no UK content again – are we trying to tell them something?).

The European Film Gateway represents only a tiny fraction of European moving image content, digital or otherwise, and no one can say how it will develop. But it has established a structure for encompassing moving image data from very varied film archive catalogues, through which they hope to be able to point to more and more content, if more archives will take up its all to contribute. And Europeana will certainly continue, gradually biding its time, persuading more and more libraries and archives that it is their European duty to supply ever more content to the giant digital soup. Lucky us.

There is, by the way, a separate European Film Gateway project site, which has more background information on the project itself.

Going digital

http://www.europeanfilmgateway.eu

Well folks, the Bioscope is on its travels once more. I’m heading off to speak at a symposium with the heady title of “Film Archives and Their Users in the ‘Second Century’ – Risks and Benefits of the Transition to Digital“. The event is being held to mark the launch of the European Film Gateway, a major undertaking which I’ll be reporting on in detail on my return.

The event is taking place in Bologna, Italy, alongside the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival of archive films. The symposium is looking at

the consequences of the transition from analogue to digital by looking at the self-perception of the archives, their relationship with their users as well as the implications of this paradigm shift for their daily work.

In other words, whither the film archives now that the digital world is upon us? My talk may be familiar if there’s anyone in the audience who read the Bioscope, because it is going to be based on an old post here, Alice – random but cool, an analysis of the remarkable popularity of the 1903 film Alice in Wonderland when the BFI issued it on YouTube in February 2010 – since which time it has gained over one million views and a fascinating array of comments. Well, they’re my words, and they say what I want to say, so why not re-use them?

There is a good line-up of speakers, including Nicola Mazzanti, Thomas Christensen (Danish Film Institute), Manuela Padoan (Gaumont-Pathé Archives) and Georg Eckes (Deutsches Filminstitut and the European Film Gateway). What I am going to try to do is report on the symposium while I’m there, through a mixture of tweets (using my personal @lukemckernan address) and live aditions to this blog post – if the technology will let me do so this time. If it all fails, then no matter because I’ll just report in the regular way when I get back. The symposium takes place 30 June-1 July.

29 June 2011
OK, we’re here in Bologna, finding tweeting a bit of a problem, but hopefully we can produce a live symposium report by adding to the blog post. The symposium starts tomorrow, close by the Cinema Lumiere, where the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival is running. I’ve been down there to say hello to a few folks – it’s eighteen years since I was last here. A great festival, but it’s too darn hot for this pale Englishman. Two days will be enough.

30 June 2011
09.45 – So here I am, seated in a blessedly cool auditorium, headphone translation at the ready, all to learn about where film archives think they are going in a digital age. Hope my talk is provocative enough. But how will it come over in translation? Some of the YouTube teenspeak I’ll be citing is tough enough in English …

11.15 – A couple of high-powered presentations to kick things off. Giovanna Fossati from EYE Film Institute on new models film archiving – the freezer for all things analogue, the cloud for digital preservation, the virtual Steenbeck for the ‘haptic’ online film experience, curatorship by curators and the crowd.

She emphasized that film as a medium is on its way out, something stressed strongly by Nicola Mazzanti, with headlines from a forthcoming EU report (‘Digital Agenda for European Film Heritage’). Cinema is digital now, film will cease to be an exhibition medium within a year, scanners for film-to-digital are on their way out so we have to digitise now. If no action is taken we will lose the analogue past and have no means to preserve the digital future. The cost for the 1,100 features and 1,400 shorts made in Europe per year? 290M euros per year, approx the same as the annual budget of a large European opera house.

11.45 – Also Mazzanti pointed out necessity of legal deposit and said only Netherlands and UK among the member states don’t have it. Hmm, I detect pressure about to be applied …

12.00 – Thomas Christensen from the Danish Film Institute suggests fewer F-15 fighters rather than opera houses would be preferable. Analogue film collections to be a unique, treasured resource to be digitised on demand. Scholars don’t much go to film archives any more – they’ll seek out what they find online. Archives must make authentic digital cinema quality elements, especially for orphan and out-of-copyright films.

So much emphasis on ‘film’ heritage and the film experience when film itself is disappearing. But what about TV, nonfiction film, web video? Why this fixation on the feature film? The culture is changing, not just the medium.

13.45 – Sitting in the shade at lunchtime. Hot but not too hot, after thunderstorms last night. I’m on at 14.00, talking about users – largely absent from the discussions so far. Why do we leave our users out of the equation so often? Do they want us to preserve everything? How much do we film archivists know? But equally how dangerous will things be if we leave it all to the crowd?

14.35 – Well that shook them up a bit.

[Update: the text is available on my personal site, here]

16.45 – Some papers on use of archive content for TV and research projects given in Italian, then David Walsh from the Imperial War Museum speaking drolly on the theme “Digitise your film, sell it online, make lots of money – simple isn’t it?” Unfortunately he’s not able to tell us if it is making money for them, yet. They have been making 750,000 euros in footage sales p.a. by the traditional route. But what happens if even an archive like the IWM, which has the rights to 80% of its collection, can’t make money online?

17.05 – Talk on the Charlie Chaplin Archive, a database with documents you can only access at Bologna. All very interesting, but this symposium is supposed to be about discussing the issues for film archives at a time of great change. A bit too much of archives reporting on their projects. Archivist aren’t necessarily the right people to talk about archives. Discuss.

18.40 – OK, that’s it for today. Interesting presentation on Italian home movies archive which seems to have done everything right. Not sure if the organisers have quite got the debate they hoped for. But we get the European Film Gateway presentations tomorrow, which may open up more. The full Bioscope guide will follow in due course.

See you tomorrow, same place.

1 July 2011
Day two dawns in sultry Bologna. It’s the European Film Gateway presentations, so we can expect enthusiasm and idealism a-plenty. There will be introductions to the project overall, then archives from individual member states will talk about their contributions – Italy, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Czech Republic, Lithuania … with the conspicuous absence of eurosceptic UK.

10.05 – Film archivists, like policemen, are looking so much younger nowadays.

10.25 – Georg Eckes introduces the EFG. Funded by the EC, 16 archives plus 5 partners contributing. A digital showcase. Mostly nonfiction film. Users are 10 times more likely to click on a video item than a text item. But still only 2% of Europeana objects are audiovisual.

80% of EFG is images, 10% video, 10% text. Strong emphasis on early (out of copyright) film. Plea for archives to be consistent with metadata to make the work of gateways easier. Interesting power games underpin some of this. If your data isn’t harvestable it stays under your control.

Uses film metaphor, showing delightful Danish film of aviator Ellehammer in 1907 only just getting off the ground. Early days for EFG before it truly flies.

10.45 – Europeana presentation. Single, direct and multilingual access poin to European cultural heritage. Reflecting the diversity of Europe. 1500+ participating institutions. 90 direct providers. 16M items so far, aiming for 30M by 2015. 22,000 visits a day. That’s not terribly impressive. Does anyone care that much about Europe and its diversity?

11.20 – Europeana chap explains that it has been marketed more to providers than users so far, and that the individual sites get many more views than that. Fair enough, but this may be more about power politics than users. Europeana is biding its time. This is all so heartening really – all of these institutions competing to bring us more and more stuff in ever easier and more useful ways. How nice of them.

11.40 – Archivio Luce says that its footage sales figures are double those revealed by the IWM. 4000 hours of content. They own 99% of their collection. No 1 contributor to EFG. Touch of machismo here.

12.10 – Audience wakes up for presentation on silent erotic films made by Saturn films in Austria. Some tasteful nude bathing in 1906.

12.20 – Now products of association of amateur Swiss filmmakers. Presenters declines to show low res EFG versions and says he’d rather show 16mm!

12.50 – Fairly joyless presentation on Lithuanian documentaries topped by 5 mins clip of sand dunes. Norwegian polar films coming up, rather more to my taste. Amundsen heads out for the South Pole once again. It’ll be available on the EFG from August.

13.00 – Denmark’s first filmmaker, Peter Elfelt. Majority of his 250 films survive, 60 or so available via EFG. 700 Danish films + 1000 clips + 50000 stills on EFG, with no onscreen spoiler. Despite the great variety, the most sought after content remains sex films. It could be a bit depressing to be a Danish film archivist.

Interesting questions afterwards raising difference between EFG and commercial services like Netflix. But the public archives are never going to be able to win that game. They complement it.

13.35 – We finish with Czech film censorship documents, the Collate repository. Covers documents from CZ, Austria and Germany for 20s and 30s. Looks interesting. To be explored, later.

14.45 – Chatted afterwards with EFG’s Georg Eckes. More content is on its way, but thereafter EFG ticks along – on surprisingly little money – with care of the content in the hands of the archives. Not all moving image content on Europeana has to be filtered via EFG or its TV sidekick EU Screen.

And now it’s homeward bound. A worthwhile two days, some of it to do with silents, and hopefully the rest isn’t without interest. It all connects.

I’ve been blogging by phone while not being able to see how the results look. Hope they’re credible, legible and don’t leave me liable.

See you back in Blighty.

Union search

http://unionsearch.bfi.org.uk

In 2007 the UK government’s Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) announced a £25M investment in screen heritage. The Strategy for UK Screen Heritage (later Screen Heritage UK) was a vote of confidence in the UK’s public sector moving image archives, predicated on the belief that strategic investment in those archives would pay off in terms of public value, short term and long term. The money was administered by the now defunct UK Film Council, and the beneficiaries were the BFI National Archive (which received the lion’s share of the money) and a number of English regional film archives. There were four elements to the original programme:

  • Securing the National Collection
    Capital works to extend and improve BFI storage facilities with appropriate conditions to safeguard the collection.
  • Revitalising the Regions
    Nomination of key collections in the English Regions, leading to improved plans for their preservation and access.
  • Delivering Digital Access
    Extending online access to the Nation’s screen heritage, through collection cross-searching and digitisation.
  • Demonstrating Educational Value
    Identifying, developing and evaluating effective use of screen heritage material within learning environments.

In practive the ‘demonstrating educational value’ element got absorbed by the others, but the remaining programmes strands have been pursued with vigour over the past four years, despite a reduction in the original award thanks to government spending cuts, and we are close to seeing the public results.

One of outcomes has gone live, though it hasn’t been announced as yet, and it remains in a test of beta phase. But it is out there, and it is of particular interest to us. It’s another example of the federated databases that we have been highlighting of late, and it is the Union Search.

Strictly speaking its proper name is Your Film Archives, but that’s such an awful name that you can’t see it outlasting the beta phase. Union Search has been its working title, Union Search is what is written into the URL, and Union Search is what we will call it.

Union Search brings together the catalogues of seven film archives, with more partner archives promised: the BFI National Archive, Yorkshire Film Archive, Northern Region Film and Television Archive, Screen Archive South East, the North West Film Archive, the Wessex Film and Sound Archive, and Amber Films. It is a concatenation of catalogue records, not the films themselves, though it is possible to restrict searches to content that is viewable online, for which you are taken to the relevant film on the relevant film archive’s own website or other video platform. But for the most part this is about finding out who holds what.

This is a major step forward. The BFI’s own database is a tremendous resource, probably richer in information on film and television (especially for the silent era) than any other database out there, with the possible exception of the IMDb. We have been holding off from writing a review of it because there are some significant changes to be made to its structure, which we await. But what has been frustrating is that it is a database of film and television programmes that the BFI knows about, not just those that it holds, but it doesn’t tell you which those films are. The version at the BFI physical Library does; the online version doesn’t. If you know a thing or two about how the BFI organises its information, you can sometimes work out from the database whether it holds a film or not, but most people are reduced to guesswork.

Union Search is an online database of the BFI’s holdings alone. It’s not every film yet – there are 62,000 films listed under BFI (of which 4,500 are silent) but the BFI has over 800,000 titles all told, including many more silents than those 4,500, so we’re still dealing with a sample (there 260,000 titles under something ‘Test’ archive option which represents a greater amount BFI content, but none of these links now lead you to an actual catalogue entry). But it is an easy guide to what exists, including an outline indication of what formats are held, searchable by keyword, name, title, date, colour or b/w, sound or silent.

And then we get all the other archive catalogues as well. Archives such as the Yorkshire Film Archive or the North West Archive hold largely amateur and non-fiction films of relevance to the regions they represent. For silent films, that means another 7,000 titles on top of the 4,500 held by the BFI, from newsreels to home movies. 193 silent films all told are available to view online (go to advanced search, click on “only records with video online” and check the “silent” tick box beneath). Each catalogue entry gives you title, a short description (there are some shotlists available), format held, date, basic credits, keywords (a very haphazard selection – there don’t seem to be many trained cataloguers producing film catalogues nowadays), genre, sound or silent (or mute), colour or b/w, length and ID number. There is useful faceted searching, so type in any term and down the right-hand column it will tell you how many of your results come from which archive, which are silent or sound, and so on. And you can narrow your search down to a single archive, or combination of archives.

It must be stressed that Union Search, or Your Film Archives, is still in test mode. There are plenty of rough edges, from the lack of anywhere to click back to the home page after conducting a search, to the large number of false ‘test’ records. It presents very much simplified content, because when matching up disparate databases you are necessarily constrained by common denominators. It may also be storing up huge problems for the archives as researchers learn of titles that archives hold and demand immediate access – but to make all of the one-and-half million or so films and programmes held in the UK’s public sector archives available to all would cost a whole lot more than £25M. We must take these things one step at a time.

So, treat Union Search as a test site, with the expectation of not everything being there, or necessarily exactly as you might want it to be described. But to have the archives working together like this, creating a networked catalogue greater than the sum of their individual parts – that is quite something. And what can be built on this platform in time will be something more.

We’ll review it again when it goes public properly. Go explore (with all the caveats as noted above).

Searching the BUFVC

http://beta.bufvc.ac.uk

We are mentioning with increasing frequency the existence of federated databases; that is, databases of databases, which allow you to search across multiple databases through a single search option. Sometimes they get called gateways or portals, but they are essentially all doing the same thing. We have already mentioned Connected Histories, JISC MediaHub, Canadiana and Europeana. There are others of major status in the pipeline which we will be covering at the appropriate time. But today we are looking at the BUFVC federated search environment aka All BUFVC.

The British Universities Film & Video Council is a small organisation that achieves big things. It exists to support the use of moving images and sound in UK higher education, and does so chiefly through a combination of information, online databases and a television and radio off-air recording service for educational users. Snappily known as the BUFVC, it used to employ your scribe not so long ago, so this may not be an entirely dispassionate review, but they do damn fine work with all the right principles – and this is a damn fine resource that they have created.

The federated search environment (a terrible phrase, friends) brings together nine databases and 13 million records. The databases include TRILT (a huge database of programme information on all UK TV and radio since 2001 and further records back to 1995), a database of some 30,000 educational titles aailable on DVD and tape, News on Screen (data on 180,000 British newsreels and cinemagazines from 1910 onwards), Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio (7,000 records), TVTiP (television listings for the UK’s ITV channel 1955-1985), This Week (records for the ITV documentary series 1956-1982), and three independent local radio databases with associated recordings. As the publicity blurb puts it:

The search environment will transform moving image and sound resource discovery by replacing the need for researchers to locate databases and collections through multiple channels. It will enable creative discovery of content by opening up collections and connecting users with resources they were not previously aware of.

Before you get too excited, not all of this is accessible to everyone. Someone of the resources have been paid for with UK higher education monies and are accessible via password to UK HE institutions only, while TRILT is only available to BUFVC members, apart from the two most recent weeks’ programme data. Other records provide catalogue data, and then link to the film or sound recordings themselves, but you have to be in the UK HE club to access those. But that’s the BUFVC’s business to serve UK universities, and it’s highly commendable that they can still make so much of the catalogue data, and a great many digitised documents, available to all.

So there is a huge amount to discover for everyone. And here it does just about everything right that you would want to see from such a resource. Enter any search term and and result come up with title, short descriptions and some cheery icons which let you know database they come from, what genre type (e.g. radio, newsreel), what medium (e.g. film, sound) and whether any digital content is available online (subject to your particularl status). Individual records provide further information, depending on the nature of the original database. You can used the Advanced Search to refine searches by date, date range, medium, collection, availability, and genre. You can rate records, trace your preious searches, order search results by relevance, date or title, and results can be exported in XML format, as text or in citation format. There is first-rate faceting (i.e. letting you know how many of your search results break down into particular categories, and it even offers serendipitious related searches. What fun.

Search results for ‘charlie chaplin’

So what is there for the silent film researcher? The easiest thing to do is to used the adanced search and narrow search results to 1896-1929. You’ll find some 35,000 newsreel records and 500 Shakespeare records. The former are records of almost every British newsreel and film magazine released over that period, covering a huge variety of social and political stories as well as many items specifically relating to cinema subjects (17 newsreels on Chaplin, 20 for Pickford, 14 for Fairbanks). The BUFVC doesn’t hold the films, but the records will tell you who does (and link you to online copies including the freely-available titles held by British Pathe). The Shakespeare records are (hopefully) every title from the silent era relating to the Bard, a hugely useful resurce in itself, again with information on where extant copies may be found. But take away the date limiters and there is more to be found, among TV and radio programmes and DVD releases. 129 search results for Chaplin overall should give you an idea of the range.

The BUFVC federated search environment (it’s still a dreadful name, but I understand the idea is to have it appear on their front page so that the search facility effectively beomes the BUFVC online) is the result of a collaborative project between the BUFVC and Royal Holloway, University of London, and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It was funded as part of something called the Digital Equipment and Database enhancement for Impact programme, and it is designed to create impact. Nine databases are too many to be offering separately – users will know about one or two, but ignore the others. They won’t be able to ignore this. It also establishes a platform onto which other databases could be added in time, enriching discovery all the more.

Go explore.

Cine-tourism

Google Map showing locations of films made in the early 1900s by R.W. Paul in the Muswell Hill and New Southgate area, produced by the Cine-Tourist

My favourite website of the moment is the Cine-Tourist. The site has been created by Roland-François Lack of University College London as a home for his studies into cinema and place. It’s a model example of how to use the Web as a home for research in forms to which the Web is best suited.

The Cine-Tourist, as Lack bills himself, is interested how films record and depend upon place, both literally and metaphorically. He demonstrates the interrelationships in a number of engrossing ways. For example, his site has sections on cities: that on Paris has 63 frame grabs from Jacques Rivette’s Paris s’en va (1981), identifying the specific locations; that on London has a series of frame grabs rather playfully showing maps that appear in films depicting police stations. That all sounds rather little bit trainspotter-ish, but in practice pinpointing the specifics of place somehow deepens the sense of depth in a film, in the way that it always leads our imagination away from the literal.

This is made clearer in the Cine-Tourist’s blog, The Daily Map, which posts daily frame grabs from a wide range of films, each showing a map significantly positioned in the background, often with an engrossing quotation underneath, from studies of image, place and cultural history. Several of the examples so far are from silent films, as in this frame still from Jean Epstein’s La chute de la Maison Usher (1928):

‘The face is a map’: frame still from La chute de la Maison Usher (1928)

There are other elements to the site, including thoughts on methodologies, a biographical account of his local cinemas, links and a helpful bibliography of “books and essays that read maps in films or films through maps or films as maps …” But I want to draw particular attention to the section Local filmmaker: local film subjects. The Cine-Tourist lives in the Muswell Hill area of London, and one hundred years ago the area was home and workspace for British pioneer filmmaker Robert W. Paul.

Paul lived and maintained a studio and film laboratories in the Muwsell Hill and New Southgate areas. The Cine-Tourist has photographed the intriguingly mundane buildings that were Paul’s homes in the area, but then has studied Paul’s films closely (both those extant and lost films nevertheless indentifiable to a degree through catalogues) and matched locations to film scenes. So far, this is much like the work done by John Bengtson at his Silent Locations blog (recently reported on by the Bioscope). The Cine-Tourist however goes further by subjecting the images to greater topographical and filmographical analysis, and by mapping the locations of some of Paul’s films of the 1900s onto Google Maps, as demonstrated at the top of this post. From this map you can go to the locations specific films, which you can additionally view on Street View or as a satellite view. Additional links take you to detailed information on Paul’s domestic and professional addresses, with further links to the London Project database on pre-First World War film businesses in London.

Robert Paul’s 1903 home ‘Malvern’, now the ‘Muswell Hill Food & Wine’,”the shop to which I go for last-minute, late-night supplies of wine and sundries” (the Cine-Tourist)

This isn’t just a piece of diverting local history. It links up the personal to the professional to the geographical to the Web. Lack begins with himself as London resident, or London traveller; traces his personal history of filmgoing and filmwatching in London (and other cities); documents this through the films in which people are themselves mapped in various ways; then brings all this together into a website which links out again to the greater world of film studies, area studies, and the co-ordinates of place in general. What it may all signify in the end, I couldn’t tell you exactly – but the journey is engrossing.

The Cine-Tourist is an example of an increasing trend in the scholarly study of the mysteries of place. Its inspiration goes back to the flâneur of 19th century Paris, the man in the crowd who was a part of the city yet by perambulating through it was somehow distanced from it, as Baudelaire described:

To be away from home and yet to find oneself everywhere at home, to be at the centre of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world.

The flâneur is a reader of the city through which he passes. Other inspirations for what has become a modern movement are Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project and the ‘situationist’ Guy Debord, who came up with the somewhat loose term ‘psychogeography’ often used to describe such preoccupations. Most recently there is the London writer Iain Sinclair, author of such richly allusive works as London Orbital (a tour of the M25 which circumnavigates London) and Lights out for the Territory, works to be found placed prominently in the London section of many a bookshop, doubtless bewildering the unsuspecting tourists who purchase them. Sinclair, like Debord, is also a filmmaker, and another member of the same ‘school’ is documentary filmmaker Patrick Keiller, whose 2007 exhibition placing images from early films onto the same locations today was covered by the Bioscope.

What is interesting is how such ramblings (literally so) have found their natural home on the Web; indeed are being encouraged by the Web, which by its very nature brings together that association of ideas that psychogeography seeks to achieve. Google Maps, Google Earth, Street View, OpenStreetMap (a free, editable world map), HistoryPin (mapping of people’s historical photos) and Geograph (a project inviting anyone to help document every square kilometre of the UK and Ireland with photographs) each encourage us to explore and share what we have explored.

London Sound Survey‘s mapping of sounds (the orange squares) from the London of today to the Booth maps of 1898, colour-coded to show levels of welath and poverty

Interestingly, many psychogeographical or semi-pyschogeographical sites are rather bad at using the Web. Among some of the better examples, check out Classic Cafes (London and seaside cafes), Derelict London (the strange poetry of abandoned corners of London), Urban Squares (city squares around the world), Mythogeography (“for walkers, artists who use walking in their art, students who are discovering and studying a world of resistant and aesthetic walking, anyone who is troubled by official guides to anywhere …”) and the excellent London Sound Survey (systematically mapping the city though its sounds).

For silent films, we are fortunate in having two outstanding examples of the use of mapping tools, though neither is strictly psychogeographical in intent. Going to the Show documents the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina to the end of the silent film era, bringing together Sanborn fire insurance maps of the period and Google Maps; while Cinema Context documents cinema-going and films seen in the Netherlands, linking its database records to Google Maps and the Internet Movie Database. Both have been highly praised on these pages before now (see here and here). I shall be writing about Cinema Context again soon. For other such empirical studies of cinemas and their place, see the HOMER project website (though some of the links no longer work).

Roland-François Lack has another blog, The BlowUp moment, dedicated to frame stills showing the use of cameras in films, with a new image daily.

Go explore. Literally so.

Performing arts

The Tempest (UK 1908), based on Shakespeare’s play, directed by Percy Stow

Apologies for the intermittent service, folks – it’s been a bit busy, and the Bioscope has been rather set to one side, gathering dust. But we return with news of a new online catalogue from the British Film Institute, which is some interest to us. The catalogue is The Performing Arts on Film & Television, which is available as part of the BFI website or can be downloaded as a single PDF (7MB). It’s a selective catalogue around 3,500 film and video materials, dating from 1895 to the present, held by the archives and collections of the BFI, Arts Council England, LUX, and the Central St Martins British Artists Film & Video Study Collection. It has been commissioned by MI:LL (Moving Image: Legacy and Learning), an Arts Council England initiative “to support projects and develop strategies that promote engagement with the arts through the moving image”.

So, what does this well-meaning venture give us? It is divided up into seven areas: British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, Theatre, Dance, Music, Performance Art and Artists’ Film & Video, From Politics to Poetry, and Cinema Acting Styles. As said, it’s a selective catalogue, so it provides information titles that are likely to be of strong interest of researchers. Some areas are covered in more detail than others (it’s hard to see what value there is in the tokenstic choices given under Political Oratory or Propaganda, which is rather stretching the idea of ‘performing arts’ in any case). But one of the sections that aims for comprehensiveness is British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, and that’s our territory, which is good.

The section has been researched by the BFI National Archive’s curator of silent films, Bryony Dixon. It aims to identify most relevant films for the 1895-1930 period held by the BFI that document music hall, which it divides into Records of performances and actualities, Original works made for cinema featuring music hall artistes, and Films based on music hall sketches and plays. So many of these films record the only performance by some of the legendary performers of the past, or document aspects of stage practice which can be read about in many places but never seen again – except through film.

Fred Evans (Pimple) in an unidentified British comedy known as Fat Man on a Bicycle

So, for example we have E. Williams and his Merry Men (1899), a precious record of a seaside minstrel act; Lil Hawthorne singing Kitty Mahone in a 1900 synchronised sound film (1900); an extraordinary record of Hengler’s ‘plunging horses’ in a hippodrome act, c.1902, in a film known only as [Collapsing Bridge]; several Cinematophone, Chronophone and Vivaphone films of singers 1907-1909 which were originally synchronised with sound discs; music hall comedians such as Fred Evans (Pimple), Sam T. Poluski, George Robey and Lupino Lane in original comedies made for the cinema, rare film of the exterior of a music hall made in 1920, in the film Hoxton … Saturday July 3, Britannia Theatre; and numerous examples of DeForest Phonofilms – sound-on-film shorts made in the mid to late 1920s, chiefly of music hall and variety performers.

Other parts of the catalogue are more selective, and have relatively little on silent films. The Theatre section does point us to silent interpretations of classical theatre (an Italian Elektra by Euripedes from 1909, a 1911 Antigone by Sophocles), but the Shakespeare section is disappointingly selective and conventional. It mentions few silents, despite the BFI having the world’s largest collection of silent Shakespeare films. Look instead at the sub-section on 17th to 19th Century playwrights for such surprises as the Thanhouser company tackling Ibsen’s The Pillars of Society in 1911, or the 1915 American production of Ghosts with Henry B. Walthall. The Cinema Acting Styles section has a page on early and silent cinema, but it is peculiarly slender (just Orphans of the Storm, King of Kings, Piccadilly and a couple of documentaries – why bother?).

The catalogue is arranged thematically, so you will find silents dotted about all over the place, which is a good thing. It means researchers look for a theme, a performer or a writer might stumble across works which they could otherwise shun were they presented with a plain chronological listing. All of the archival films come from the BFI’s collections, and there is information on how to access the films from the multiplicity of options that BFI services provide.

I have meant for some while now to write a post on how to use the BFI’s main online database. I’ve refrained from doing so because of planned changes to that catalogue, which might render any advice too quickly out of date. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, targeted productions such as The Performing Arts on Film & Television are often a lot more useful for researchers for a useful selection rather than the bewildering vastness of a complete catalogue. Researchers seldom want everything; they want something that will be immediately useful to them. I hope this new catalogue – though it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, really – performs that function. It certainly makes for fascinating browsing.

The one-stop-shop

Midland Electric Theatre, Babbington Lane, Derby, from Picture the Past, available via JISC MediaHub

Another day, another federated database. The latest offering is JISC MediaHub, which is a bringing together of a number of digital multimedia resources, many of which have been made available individually to UK higher education users by the Joint Information Systems Committee, often under institutional subscription only. Edinburgh University’s EDINA are the people who have put it all together, though all of the original digitising, describing and contextualising has been done by other hands. The resources include Film and Sound Online, NewsFilm Online (previously reviewed by the Bioscope), Spoken Word, Getty, AP Archive and several more.

JISC MediaHub brings all these together in one searchable form, allowing you to refine searches by video, image or sound (the three types featured), and by restricted or unrestricted content – so some of the content is open to all. It is clear to use, though personally I find the design on the busy side and the way descriptions pop up to the side of records a bit off-putting. Further tools and features are promised with later releases. MediaHub began in 2005 as a portal project entitled Visual and Sound Materials and has take quite a while to get to this form. It is to be hoped that it achieves its aim of increasing scholarly use of audiovisual media by making it easier to find high value content all in one place, rather than a set of disparate services. Whether researchers need (or, let’s face it, deserve) to find everything handily in one place is a matter for debate, but that’s the way things are being pushed – so it’s not really up for debate at all. You have all the advantages of the one-stop-shop, and all the disadvantages of content taken out of its curated context (though MediaHub does point researchers back to the original source website).

So, what can we find for our area of silent films, either among the restricted content (if we’re in a subscribing UK higher education institution or have password access to some other sites) or unrestricted (the rest of you)? Well, there’s quite a lot. Under content restricted to educational users only, there is a significant number of films from the Imperial War Museum covering the First World War, including the feature films The Battle of the Somme, The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, and The Battle of Arras, along with other documentary and propaganda films made by British official film outfits. There are also IWM film clips which are available to all included on another resource, the First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

There is a considerable amount of news footage from the ITN collection (NewsFilm Online, originally created by the British Universities Film & Video Council), which includes practically the entire surviving archive of the Gaumont Graphic silent newsreel (1911-1932), with its marvellously rich recod of life, events and manners over two decades. There are also silent films on medical subjects in the Wellcome Trust collection, including the renowed War Neuroses, on the treatment of shell-shock (see the earlier Bioscope post on this), and titles such as Frontal Rhinoplasty and Epidemic Encephalitis, which you tend not to find in standard silent filmographies.

MediaHub search results for ‘Ancre’, showing photographs and film clips from both restricted and open collections

Among the unrestricted content there is the Open Video Project, itself a collection of freely-available online video collections which include a number of early Edison productions (and reviewed previously on the Bioscope); and Culture Grid, a collection cultural objects from UK collections with many photographs that relate to cinema – particularly cinema buildings themselves (type in ‘cinematograph’, ‘bioscope’ or ‘electric theatre’ for some interesting results, such as the image at the top of this post).

There is much more on film outside of silent film. Among the restricted collections are the ETV collection of Soviet and left-wing films, social conscience documentaries and feature films from Amber Films, the Films of Scotland series of documentaries, clips from the Getty collection of stock footage, news footage from Associated Press, and films on archaeology, medicine, chemistry etc., with other collections under negotiation, notably the Royal Mail Film Classics collection (Night Mail and such like). Among the film content that is free to all there is ARKive (footage of endangered species).

All in all it’s a remarkable, if equally curious collection of stuff. There are hundreds of thousands of objects available (around 90,000 being film items), but the randomness of some of the collections gives a sense of lucky dip about the whole research process. You don’t know what you are going to find – and if you are looking for something specific you’re as likely to be disappointed as not – but what you do find is bound to intrigue, and hopefully to encourage scholars to come back for more. The great advantage for those in UK HE is that the restricted content is licensed for them to download and re-use, and that (I can tell you) has taken a lot of neogiating to achieve, and not a little expenditure as well.

For the rest of us, it’s a bit like peering in at the window of a toyshop when you haven’t got any pocket money. It would of course be so much better of all of this content was freely available to everyone, to do what they wanted with it in an entirely open fashion. But that’s not going to happen (yet), and much of this content has only been made available in this way because it can be restricted to educational users under careful licence conditions. So lucky you if you’re a UK student. Now go out and make use of it.