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War and Remembrance--and Preservation: London's Imperial War Museum

By Bob Fisher

From the 1916 film <em>The Battle of the Somme</em>. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London UK.

It's one thing to look into a tired soldier's eyes in the heat of a desperate battle or in its aftermath. It is something else to read about that battle in a newspaper or book. Film can make a visceral impression and leave an indelible memory. It can be the difference between mythology and an accurate picture of the meaning of history. That is why Roger Smither believes it is important to faithfully preserve films for posterity.

The International Documentary Association 2002 Preservation and Scholarship Award will be presented to the Imperial War Museum (IWM; in London, England. Smither, keeper of the museum's Film and Video Archive, accepted the award on behalf of his predecessors and present colleagues, who have dedicated themselves to assembling, preserving and making irreplaceable records of human history accessible to scholars, students, documentarians and other filmmakers, as well as the public.

The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 and mandated by Parliament in 1920 to collect and preserve relics, ranging from art to artifacts, of the First World War. The collection has been expanded to include news, documentary, propaganda and amateur films dating from the Boer War in the 1890s through contemporary times. The archives currently contain some 120 million feet of film and 10,000 hours of videotape. Smither estimates it would take over 18 months of consecutive viewing, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to review all of the film and videotape in the collection.

"The early curators of the Imperial War Museum were actually extraordinarily intuitive in understanding that the museum should make film an important part of the collection," Smither observes. "The cinema was in its infancy. It was pretty much derided as popular entertainment and nothing for cultured people to take seriously."

The museum is also a repository for oral history interviews with cameramen, soundmen, editors and directors. Smither comments, "Sadly, the program began too late to get to any of the people who had shot film during the First World War, but there is quite an extensive collection of oral history interviews from subsequent wars."

Smither was born in Istanbul, Turkey, where his father was a manager for a global oil company. Educated in England, he studied history at Cambridge, graduating in 1969. He was hired as a film cataloguer for the museum the following year. During the 1970s and '80s, Smither developed and managed computerized systems for keeping track of films in the archives. He was appointed keeper of the collection in 1990.

"I've always loved movies, but my main interest has always been history," Smither says. "The history I was taught at Cambridge was based on economics and statistics. I was more interested in what people thought was happening and why they thought it. I became interested in propaganda, how it was conducted and whether it worked. The opportunity to work in the museum as a cataloguer allowed me to explore relationships between what historians tell us happened and what the audience thinks."

In an article he wrote for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television in 1993, Smither focused on The Battle of the Somme, a classic documentary, which played to large audiences in England in 1916. His article cites comments in newspapers and diaries: "...It does give a wonderful idea of the fighting...The most impressive [picture] to my mind is that of a regiment scrambling out of a trench to charge and of one man who slides back dead." Smither then discusses why and how that scene was orchestrated to inspire support for the war.

 The IWM's collection includes films representing different points of view, ranging from the front lines to the home front. There are vivid sights and sounds recorded by combat cameraman, journalists, filmmakers and amateurs from various countries involved in the hot and cold wars that marked the 20th century.

The roots of the IWM trace back to the end of the First World War, when the British Ministry of Information transferred its collection of motion picture film to the museum. That set a precedent, which was subsequently mandated by an act of Parliament.

"In addition, we have received film from people who either shot it themselves or found footage taken by a parent or older ancestor," Smither says. "We have also received film from collectors and from individuals who confiscated it when they entered the occupied territories and Germany. We have a lot of material that was rounded up by British authorities either for intelligence purposes or to put into their own films as glimpses of the enemy, and quite a lot from former allies. The British and Soviets exchanged newsreels during World War II. We ended up with newsreels that were banned in the Soviet Union later because they were too kind to Stalin."

In general, Smither says the films owned by the museum are available to anyone. There is a 160-seat cinema where films from the archives are regularly presented to the public, and private screening rooms and other viewing facilities for researchers. The museum assists schools, other museums, film festivals, scholars, historians, students and people who are simply researching their own family histories.

Smither estimates that the museum provides footage incorporated into documentaries, news programs and narrative films for television and the cinema an average of 500 times annually. Sometimes film companies send researchers to the museum just to get a feeling for what war looked and sounded like at various times and places. The point, he says, is that yesterday's films have enormous potential as a way for the current and future generations to gain insights into their histories.

Smither says that all of the films owned by the museum have been inspected, and, as necessary, are being restored as faithfully as possible to their original condition. The films are archived in their original formats in environmentally controlled vaults.

"We believe it is an important ethic for films to be archived in their original format," he says. "We have 38,000 reels of nitrate-based films. Many film historians believe that nitrate film was a unique visual experience with a luminosity and depth that no other film medium has matched. Other historians don't agree. There was a lot of fear during the 1970s and '80s that all the world's nitrate films would be gone by the year 2000. We plan to archive the original nitrate material for as long as it is physically stable."

Smither has been working on a book entitled This Film Is Dangerous, A Celebration of Nitrate Film, which he describes as "kind of an anthology of archivists telling their favorite nitrate anecdotes. It includes oral histories of reminiscences by people who worked in the cinema when nitrate was the medium. There is also a description of the technology and history of where nitrate film came from and why it is difficult to preserve." The International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) is planning to publish Smither's book later this year.

"Another concern that I'm sure you hear from many archives is that they end up becoming museums for obsolete videotape technology," Smither comments. "We have converted our admittedly small number of two-inch videos to a more current format, and anticipate this happening with other generations of video. We keep the originals for as long as they are playable and we have the capacity to play them. Experience has taught us that what looks like a very good transfer to a new format this year may not look quite so good when the technology continues to improve a few years later. If you can go back to the original, you'll get a better quality transfer if the hardware is available."

We asked Smither how he thinks film has affected society. "That's an unfair question," he laughs in response, "But I'll try to give you an answer. I think film has put us more in touch with events that affect our lives. It gives us an impression that we are sharing an experience rather than reading about it in a newspaper. I should add that is often far from being an accurate impression, because many things intercede between reality and what you see on the screen. I'm not only talking about official censorship. There are also subjective decisions, or self-censorship, made by cameramen, directors and editors, and limitations imposed by technology."

What about the future of the Imperial War Museum? Is there more to do? "There are countless students, scholars and filmmakers, as well as the general public, who can learn valuable lessons from the heritage we have preserved and made accessible to them," he says. "There are also uncollected treasures, many of them belonging to people whose parents or grandparents had a 16mm or 8mm camera and happened to have filmed things from their unique perspectives. Every new film can add interesting dimensions to our outstanding of what a war was about and how it affected our lives. Our problem is that many people are too hesitant to come forward. They just don't think that those ‘old movies' can really be important. Believe me when I say, they can be."


Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.