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A Proposal To Ensure The Future Of The National Film And Sound Archive

In September 2014 a paper was issued representing wide industry support for moving the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) to Sydney by 2025, to give full public access to the visual and aural collections, in an accessible building, purpose-built, with exhibition halls and theatres continuously presenting Australian films and television programs along with radio shows and records, accessible as state of the art.

The response to this initiative, from at least two members of the NFSA Board, was a somewhat dismissive comment about “the preoccupation with bricks and mortar”.

However, it is this very fact – the ‘bricks and mortar’ - that has brought the Archive to this point; a totally inadequate building and a lack of foresight, vision and planning - a failure by those successively responsible to understand what the function of the Archive should be.

Much of the failure, it must be said, is that of successive governments which have allowed the deterioration of the condition of the Archive in a way they have never allowed for the National Gallery and the National Library.  It could be argued that the Archive, as the repository of the Nation’s motion picture heritage, will eventually outweigh them all in national importance.

This paper hopes positively to establish a plan for the future as well as making positive recommendations to address the present unsatisfactory situation of malaise and inertia caused by staff cuts and budget considerations.

ISSUES:

1. TOTAL DIGITISATION

The NFSA should have highly developed plans, including long-term funding for all necessary digitisation of the key elements of its holdings.  Among these key elements are the pictures and sound of the Cinesound Movietone Newsreel collection.  What is their present condition?

Note:  In 1988 Rupert Murdoch and Alan Rydge presented to the Government as “A Gift to the Nation” the Cinesound Movietone library of newsreels.  From 1983 to1994 the material was transferred to U-matic Beta tapes.  Since that time very little restoration work has taken place.

What timeline does the NFSA have planned for the full restoration and digitisation of the Cinesound features?  What is their present condition?

Note:  The Cinesound feature collection of 17 features on nitrate stock was deposited with the National Library in 1964 and inherited by the NFSA on its establishment 30 years ago.  Only two features have been restored and these only in the last five years – On Our Selection and Thoroughbred.

RECOMMENDATION

A special grant be requested of Government for the digitisation of the two elements of the Cinesound bequest to be a No. 1 priority, followed by the provision of sufficient funds for all necessary digitisation of the entire collection.

2. PRESERVATION AND RESTORATION

A new computer has been invented in the last year in the USA, named “Irene” that has attracted the attention of all archives around the world.

RECOMMENDATION

A special grant be sought from Government for the acquisition of “Irene”, the new computer which can copy, restore and preserve cylinder records, shellac records, ¼” and 2” tapes, without touching the surface of the original.  Cost in excess of $1 million.  It should be noted that the National Archives of Great Britain have sought £40 million for the urgent digitisation of their paper files.  In our case nitrate won’t wait.

3. CURRENT PROBLEMS

With the closure of the library in 2014 and the dismissal of the experienced librarian and her six volunteers, the public, scholars and historians no longer have access to this valuable resource. 

Note:  Serious concern has been expressed by donors as to why the library was closed and the fate of their donations, the contents of some of which date back to 1911.  Many who have “willed” their collections to the NFSA are presently reconsidering their positions.

RECOMMENDATION

A librarian be appointed and the library be re-opened at the earliest opportunity.

4. PICTURE LENDING LIBRARY

It no longer makes sense or justifies the expense to lend out film prints, many of which in any event have recently been sent out in unacceptably damaged condition.  

(Recent examples include (1) A print of The Titfield Thunderbolt and the Squatter’s Daughter arriving at the theatre and proving to be unscreenable.  The Titfield print was ‘red’ and colour faded and Squatter’s jumped continuously in the gate of the projector because of torn sprockets.  (2) In a presentation for The Friends of the Archive, Tony Buckley, at the Archive in December 2013, selected three widescreen 35mm shorts.  What was presented were three scratched 16mm prints in square format with one print hopelessly out of sync. )

RECOMMENDATION

Closure of the lending library of prints and transition to making the collection available on DVDs, USBs and DCPs.

5. RETAILING AND PUBLISHING

Whilst the online shop is well stocked it could be better organised so that the customer could explore better what is available, the Archive has lost its public face with the closure of its head office shop.  The NFSA’s Publishing Program division needs to be re-established and continually strengthened.

RECOMMENDATION

A revitalised Retail Division be established to re-open the Canberra shop and/or investigate leasing the Division to a company like TITLE who run the most successful high end film shops in Sydney and Melbourne as well as an established publishing division.  There should be an annual budget to support authors in recording the histories of radio, sound, television, film, for publishing text books, compilations, autobiographies and biographies, on these important areas of our culture and history.  Increase the budget and activity of the Oral History program.

6. TRAVELLING CURATOR

There should be a copy of every feature film made in Australia and/or about Australia in the collection. 

For example, it took 13 years of endless letter writing and overseas telephone calls searching for Wake in Fright.  A travelling curator would have possibly achieved this in one year.  Another example – the missing Longford classic Ginger Mick was enormously successful in the London West End and throughout England in 1923.  Has anyone gone looking for it in British vaults?  Ray Edmondson found a copy of The Sentimental Bloke entitled The Sentimental Blonde in George Eastman House.  The missing 20 minutes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were found in a South American archive.

RECOMMENDATION

Consideration be given to the appointment of two curators, the first to lead a thorough search of the world’s collections for missing Australian films.  The second appointment should be made either from within or outside the NFSA with the priority task to negotiate with the many owners of private collections, film and recordings, here in Australia. 

7. BRICKS AND MORTAR AND THE FUTURE

As previously referred to in our opening paragraph, the present building at McCoy Circuit is totally inadequate and user unfriendly.

RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Bricks and Mortar

  • The Board reinvestigate the original recommendations made by the committee on the setting up of NFSA, to Government, which unanimously recommended the Archive be based in Sydney, to take advantage of the production and post-production facilities, develop industry partnerships and enable the cost-effective utilisation of such facilities in the preservation and restoration of aural and visual materials.
  • A proposal be prepared as a matter of urgency for a purpose-built facility in Sydney to enable full public access as previously outlined.  The Board seek a commitment from Government, the Opposition and industry to support the building of a new Archive by 2025, the building should be of a scale and significance as would take its place alongside other national cultural institutions, including the National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour, Sydney, The National Art Gallery and National Museums in Canberra.

2. The Chair and Board include a greater representation of practitioners from the top echelon of radio, sound, television and film industries, led by a Chair from within the entertainment industry with considerable and respected business management experience.

The Archive Action Committee, April 2015

Anthony Buckley AM
Geoffrey Gardner
Sue Milliken AO