Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Home Movies

Most of us probably have some home movies stashed somewhere in our house or garage. The quantity of home movies floating about may be testimony to how many were produced since they have usually been seen as ephemeral and useless materials. However, as the essays in Karen L Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmerman, eds., Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) demonstrate, these are important historic documents and are particularly important as sources intersecting private memories and public acts. This volume is testimony to the relatively-recent movement to fold in home movies into the emerging film archives and film history communities marked by the increased interest in “orphan films,” the establishment of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, and the commencing of AMIA’s journal, The Moving Image. The descriptions in the volume of a number of archives now holding home movies – including the Human Studies Film Archives at the Smithsonian Institution; the Imperial War Museum; Florida Moving Image Archives; Japanese American National Museum; Library of Congress; Northeast Historic Film, and the New Zealand Film Archive – are additional evidence of the growing interest in home movies.

The various commentators in this volume provide many interesting observations about home movies in particular and archives more generally. Patricia Zimmerman describes how “home movies constitute an imaginary archives that is never completed, always fragmentary, vast, infinite” (p. 18). She also adds that, “In the popular imagination, archives often are framed as the depositories of old, dead cultural artifacts. But archives are never inert, as they are always in the process of addition of new arenas and unknown objects. The archive, then is, is not simply a depository, which implies stasis, but is, rather, a retrieval machine defined by its revision, expansion, addition, and change” (p. 19).

The various essayists cover a range of topics, from the problems of studying amateur images because of the unrecorded nature of such materials, even though home movie-making dates back to the early twentieth century and has flourished since the late 1940s. As the various commentators consider documentation such as these movies, they provide additional insights into how such sources constitute part of archives. Ayisha Abraham, as just one example, provides this sense of the archive of home movies: “On my journey of excavation, I have endured many excitements and disagreements. Some films survive, while others perish: often it is the preservation of home movies that is amateurish, not their aesthetic, technique, or content. Many film cans have not been opened in decades. With no ventilation, the cans trap moisture and disintegration begins. Mold and other agents of decay, such as excessive humidity, moisture, and exposure to rust, dust, and insects, destroy many collections. My archaeology of these images and their review in the present also expose the mold and decay of memory to the possibility of moving into a more public history. If the film is not projected, these memories remain hidden, removed from family and community” (p. 172)

This is a fascinating book about the nature of home movies and their place in the archival universe. Every archivist should read it.