Fortunately, another accidental reality of national collecting institutions is that, after a while, their own administrative records can transform into historic artefacts. An NFSA file, ‘Sir Douglas Mawson. OBE, FRS, DSC, BE (historical)’,(39) outlines the acquisition history for the AAE material and a fascinating narrative of the concerns of two national institutions: on the one hand, Sir Douglas Mawson trying to confirm his public legacy in his twilight years; on the other, the Film Division of the National Library trying to establish its place in the formative culture of screen archiving in Australia.
In November 1955, the then 73-year-old Sir Douglas Mawson contacted the Film Division of the National Library regarding the film of his 1929–1931 BANZARE expedition. Aware that the National Library held a negative of Frank Hurley’s commercial release version of Siege of the South, he asked that the library embargo access, hoping to re-release a new cut of the footage in order to fund BANZARE’s scientific research publication program (as Mawson biographer Philip Ayres notes, this program continued, epically, until 1975) (40). This time, Mawson implied, it would be without Frank Hurley’s original voice-over, which Sir Douglas described as ‘[converting] the film story of a scientific expedition into a second grade popular story, introducing Mickey-the-Mouse and boxing arena jargon’.(41)
Agreeing to Mawson’s request and understanding the opportunity, Assistant National Librarian CA Burmester used this as an excuse to ask Mawson to consider depositing his other Antarctic archives with the National Library.(42) The papers were already committed to the University of Adelaide; however, Mawson indicated there was still an apparently considerable collection of positive and negative cinefilm material in his possession, with no determined future.
The correspondence continued through 1956, now mostly between Mawson and the head of the National Library, HL White. White learnt Mawson had been in contact with the BFI National Archive in the UK since 1954. A true Edwardian, Mawson initially had difficulty grasping the Australian, rather than British, heritage value of the material and had only made contact with the National Library as a result of prompting by the BFI. More alarmingly, in mid-March 1956 the BFI forwarded to White a copy of correspondence in which Mawson had casually indicated that something was already being done, locally, about his film holdings:(43)
The Commonwealth Government has had an officer visit me and overhaul the negatives and positives in my possession. The cinema film of our Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911–14 has been reported still printable. Some of the positives have deteriorated beyond redemption … It has been arranged with the Commonwealth National Films organisation that the negative be carefully copied.(44)
To White, this ‘Commonwealth officer’ must have seemed like some kind of film heritage Man in Black – mysterious and alarming. If Mawson did not trust the future of his clearly important materials to the only film archive in the Commonwealth, then to whom? Alarmed, but deferential, White wrote to Mawson on 24 July 1956, pleading for the Library to be kept in the loop: ‘We are ourselves actively engaged in copying for preservation … and are of course most anxious that films of the importance of yours be preserved in the national collection’.(45)
Mawson, frail and now finding it difficult to keep up with his correspondence, delayed any clarification until mid-May 1958. Then he revealed that the ‘Commonwealth Officer’ was in fact Alan Campbell-Drury, head of the photographic division of the Antarctic Division. After another segue into his mixed feelings regarding Hurley’s contribution – acknowledging his skills, for all his vulgarity (‘In artistry and technique [he] is unique. [Herbert] Ponting himself once told me: “Tell him that he is a better man than me in polar exploration films”’) – Mawson outlined the condition of both the AAE and BANZARE films. Campbell-Drury had gone though the ‘negative and some old prints which I have … he finds some shrinkage and some of the prints are not so stable as others and have chemically deteriorated and have had to be thrown away. Other positive is still in good condition and I am told that negative could still be made from any undeteriorated positive’.(46)
Antarctic Division papers confirm that Mawson had probably also been in discussions about his film collection with its head, Dr Philip Law, as far back as 1954. In September that year Law had seconded the renowned Anglo-Austrian scientific journalist and filmmaker Anthony Michaelis – then briefly on staff at Sydney University – to visit Adelaide. Michaelis reported back on Mawson’s apparently depressing re-acquaintance with his long neglected nitrate film trove, ‘can after can of spoilt film and the loss of the negatives has certainly shown to Sir Douglas that his insurance policy is by no means of a permanent nature, and I think he was really quite upset’.(47)
Campbell-Drury’s 1958 visit appears to have just been the mopping up operation. Mawson advised White that the footage had gone to the Division’s photographic studios in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, where Campbell-Drury would ‘… go through these films carefully, retaining all that can still be useful’. He did agree that a Commonwealth Government Department would strike a negative and that ‘arrangements will then be made for your film library to get a negative copy’.
This was not reassurance. It merely converted alarm into consternation. White wrote again to the Commonwealth Film Unit head Stanley Hawes, trying to find out whether the latter was doing the printing. Hawes agreed it should be the job of the Library’s Film Division, but had heard nothing about it. Through July, White pleaded with the Antarctic Division for any material Campbell-Drury discarded to be deposited with the Library, and with Mawson, to whom he suggested the Library would be keen to do the copying work on the AAE film at least from ‘one complete print’.
Too late. Mawson wrote to White that the material had already gone to Campbell-Drury. However, some compromise seems to have been reached; the Antarctic Division of External Affairs agreed in August that ‘no editing is being done other than the rejection of film which has decomposed with age’ and agreed to deposit the ‘preserved’ footage with the library.(48)
In fact the Film Unit of the National Library had little to offer as alternative means of preserving the film, given its resources and knowledge base in the late 1950s. The National Library was reliant on external commercial lab work, and also practised some of the – in retrospect – bad screen archiving habits of the era, especially the tendency to print 35mm down to 16mm, or to discard original nitrate film after the printing of safety materials.
In retrospect, it is fortunate that the final supply-chain utilised the then considerable in-house photographic resources of the Antarctic Division, and of a photographic professional who was a stakeholder in the survival of the material and a confidant of the donor. Indeed, the evidence suggests that Campbell-Drury did about as well as he could. But that still leaves questions that the, as yet, unformulated values of Australian screen archiving and the largely non-existent discipline of local film history did not know how to ask or answer.
Sir Douglas Mawson died in October 1958. Eighteen months later, and after what must have been a worrying period, the Antarctic Division’s RHJ Thompson sent a long memo to White on the outcome of Campbell-Drury’s work (Fig. 18). Overall the film ‘has been held by this Division rather longer than was intended’. The positive material had been badly deteriorated and poorly stored, the negative in slightly better condition. Thompson advised that he intended to forward to the library ‘74 cans each measuring 10 3/4 inches in diameter: … AAE … (silent film cuts) 38 reels; AAE… ‘Home of the Blizzard’ Silent lecture film, 5 reels; AAE negative film, 13 reels’. This is the first mention of the title Home of the Blizzard in any of this correspondence. Mawson had never referred to the material by this name, always calling it the ‘AAE film’.(49)