By Dawn Roberts, Senior Director of Collections
As part of the Collections Inventory Project, Collections staff with the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (CAS/PNNM) conducted an inventory and preliminary condition survey of the museum’s motion film collection in 2011. The majority of the over 1,300 films were original films created by Academy staff, Board members, and local naturalists, created between the mid 1920s and the 1980s. These films documented Academy field studies, local natural areas, and different species, as well as travel by Academy staff and Board members to conduct research for exhibits. Historically, these films were used regularly by the Academy in public programs and presentations. Now, the films were becoming increasingly fragile, and the information contained within their frames was found nowhere else.
The films were still in their original metal and cardboard containers and needed to be rehoused with archival quality materials. The original containers — acidic papers, cardboard, adhesives — were causing the film to deteriorate.
The old metal reels caused breakage to the film and were susceptible to rust, which caused chemical deterioration of the film. Acid migration from papers and cardboard affected the film’s stability. Original paper labels glued onto the reels became detached over time, creating the potential for information to become disassociated.
Due to the fragility of the films, CAS/PNNM sought funding support to work with a contractor who had the equipment and expertise to work with historic motion films. In 2012, CAS/PNNM was awarded a $35,000 grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation for the project. Matching funds were generously provided through a $25,000 grant from the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust and $10,000 in individual donations from our paddle raise at the Butterfly Ball. In November of that year, CAS/PNNM began working with the Chicago Film Archives (CFA) on its motion film cataloguing project.
At the CFA’s studio, each film was individually assessed. Information about the film was catalogued, and included: subject matter, creator and publisher, date created, film stock, date code, footage, film gauge, and other physical attributes of the film. The CFA evaluated the condition of each film, noting shrinkage and warpage, physical damage, and color fading. A few were found with damage from mold of vinegar syndrome.
Vinegar syndrome is the process of the cellulose acetate film base degrading — it is caused by humidity, and the film starts to warp, buckle, shrink, and give off a vinegary smell.
The films were cleaned and minor repairs, such as repairing splices, were made to stabilize the films. The films were then outfitted with new archival cores, leaders, and containers to provide an inert micro-environment to help stabilize the films and protect them from further deterioration.
Single frames from some of the films were also captured during CFA’s assessment, providing visual references for several of the films in the collection. These digital images will be utilized to provide examples of the films’ contents for research requests, social media relating to the collection, grant proposals, among other uses.
The project with the CFA was completed in February 2014, and the collection organized at the CAS/PNNM collections facility. A total of 1,356 films were verified and catalogued in the collection. The information resulting from the cataloguing and condition assessments gives our Collections staff a baseline with which to monitor the preservation of the films and additional data about the films to manage the collection.
The historic value of the films for conservation studies is immeasurable. Through this project, the Academy is developing a much clearer understanding of its motion film collection and how we might apply the unique field information contained within these frames. However, the films are fragile and projecting them with standard equipment would damage them. Digitally duplicating the films – the process of scanning the frames to produce a digital copy – would make the collection fully accessible. In 2007, the Academy had a small amount of its footage digitally transferred by the Film Video and New Media Department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This footage is shown in the Heritage exhibit at the Nature Museum and enjoyed by our visitors today. CAS/PNNM will use the information from the motion film cataloguing project to set priorities for digital duplication of the collection and will be seeking funding for this next project to provide broad access to these films.