At the Museum of Modern Art
BY KATHRIN DI ROCCO
In Pennsylvania in late April the trees are leafless and stand stark and grey against the
horizon. Bird nests are visible in the forks of branches. At night, possum and deer scamper across the roads and it is very very dark and very very still. Somewhere, tucked away in this landscape with a beaver dam out back, is the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center (MoMA).
Opened in 1996, the Center is the repository for MoMA’s moving image collection and supplemental documentation including posters and still images. This was probably the only time in my life when I will ever hold an Oscar, and typically I did not think to ask for photographic evidence. Oscars are surprisingly heavy.
Currently the motion picture component is almost wholly analogue, with a focus on 16mm and 35mm film. The audiovisual output of major studios (Warner Brothers, Selznick) and directors (Ford, Hitchcock) are well-represented in addition to that of international artists (Man Ray, Warhol).
An exhaustive and illuminating testing process determined the best shelving and cabinetry for MoMA’s 15,000 can nitrate film collection, and the nitrate vaults were built at some distance from the main complex which houses the offices and safety film material. The nitrate vault is stringently climate-controlled and monitored – a rise of more than 15 degrees fahrenheit (a hair under ten degrees celsius) within one minute will trigger an alarm. The film cans are housed individually in the cabinets so as to best isolate them; sprinkler heads embedded in the roof are angled so as to only saturate the face of each cabinet and prevent water getting in the cans.
It is estimated that – worst case scenario – in the event of any film combusting only between 2-10 cans would be lost. This is certainly a far cry from apocryphal stories of nitrate warehouse fires that send barrels of film flying to land half a mile away!
The small staff on-site work in spacious custom-built conditions that would be the envy of any archivist or conservator. (‘Windows!’, more than one of us was heard to say.)
The film handling area can accommodate gauges up to 70mm. Hanging plastic cones are shared between desks and remove fumes produced by decomposing material.
MoMA exhibits film every day at its premises in New York City, with approximately one quarter of material sourced from the collection in Pennsylvania. Titles are also recalled for onsite viewings by visiting researchers and filmmakers, and despatched as loans to approved organisations such as libraries, universities, and micro-cinemas. Not surprisingly, the early Biograph films and the Warhol collection currently constitute the most-accessed items.
I am grateful to MoMA staff Arthur Wehrhahn, Katie Trainor, Ashley Swinnerton, Peter Williamson, Mary Keene, and Nancy Lukacinsky for being so generous with their time and knowledge; and to Jeff Stoiber and the students of the L Jeffrey Selznick School of Film.