Toiling away in the basement of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science is Rene O’Connell, the museum's image archivist. “The film archive is what I call one of our best-kept secrets,” she says.
That archive consists of over 2,000 titles, some on 35mm, some on 16mm and some even on nitrate. All of them are housed in a climate-controlled environment, where they should be able to last for hundreds of years. O’Connell joined the museum in 2008 and has worked to catalogue, rehouse and organize the film collection. And even ater ten years of work, she says the film archive is "something that we're just barely beginning to understand.”
The bulk of the film archive consists of documentaries made by former museum director Alfred Bailey, who led the institution from 1933 to 1969.
“He really changed the museum," says O'Connell, who describes him as "a field man," traveling to six continents on numerous expeditions. "He went to the most out-of-the-way, most difficult places you can imagine, and somehow he always took a movie camera and a tripod with him.”
Over the years, the museum has also acquired the occasional odd bits of film.
“We’ve got some really weird things,” says O’Connell. “I have zeppelins flying over Italy in a British Pathe film, but it's nitrate, and [Pathe] can’t take it. So even though it doesn’t exactly fit our mission, I’m keeping it. As an archivist, you have a responsibility, especially if no one else is going to take it. If I don’t keep it, it will be destroyed and lost forever.
“My job as an archivist is to get everything to the next 300 years," she continues. "And in the digital world, they think three years.”
"No one even knows the number of formats of digital video," says Robert David, the founder of CinemaLab, who works with O’Connell to restore and preserve these films. "Nobody’s keeping track of them all. They either work or they don’t, and if they don’t, there’s not much you can do.
"Over the years, files get compressed and compressed and compressed. ‘Oh, this is taking up too much space. Let’s compress it just a little bit,’ until eventually it becomes unwatchable," he continues. "That’s the future of digital media.”
The solution? “It’s a lot cheaper to transfer everything to film, put it on a shelf in a controlled environment where it can last 1,000 years,” says David. “Rene has the right frame of mind and knows the benefits of doing it on film.”
“I have a love of old film,” says O’Connell. Previous archivists focused on the photography collection, archiving and preserving prints and negatives, and didn’t consider film a priority.
“The environment that she had to rescue some of these films from was kind of extraordinary,” says David. “Some of the nitrate films were out in sheds in the heat. She really pulled things together; they were not in good shape when she showed up.”
O’Connell and David have spent the past six years restoring a number of films from the archive in an effort to call attention to the archives themselves.
“Once I showed my first film, people got excited, and I would talk about the process, how we had to save the film archive, and what it would have to take, and then people found me,” O’Connell says. “I have been so lucky that there are people who have a lot of nostalgia for film.”
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The pair is currently working on restoring lecture films shot by Bailey in the ’20s and ’30s, which he once screened at the museum on Sundays, offering a running commentary on the expeditions he had taken.
The museum recorded these lectures, allowing O'Connell to restore the films with Bailey’s actual voice. “It was just a wonderful experience that resonated with a lot of Denverites,” she says. If everything goes right, the next lecture film will be restored and screened sometime next year.
“Getting our catalogue made public is the next big step,” adds O’Connell. “Once the catalogue goes public, people will be able to see what we have and find all these odd little films.”
And then the museum’s best-kept secret will be out in the open.