Film archives at risk

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By | From the Collections

World Day for Audiovisual Heritage falls on 27 October and the slogan for this year’s celebration is “Archives at Risk: Protecting the World’s Identities“. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has announced that all of the world’s audiovisual heritage is endangered. This announcement comes in cooperation with the Co-ordinating Council of Audiovisual Archives Associations (CCAAA) and other institutions.

Handling film cans

Handling film cans. Still from Medical Motion Picture, 1947.

On World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, UNESCO focuses on showcasing our shared audiovisual heritage. Collections only become endangered when they are no longer visible. Since 2007, the Wellcome Library has been digitising its Moving Image and Sound holdings after receiving some initial funding from JISC Collections.

Around 850 titles have now been digitised (with a rolling programme of a further 100 titles added annually). The digitisation focuses on material owned by Wellcome Library, out-of-copyright material, and titles available under licence through arrangements with other institutions such as the British Film Institute. The BFI licensed 100 public health titles made by the Central Office of Information to us.

Editing film, from Medical Motion Picture, 1947.

Editing film. Still from Medical Motion Picture, 1947.

By nature, medical film and video footage is a kind of ‘hidden cinema’ – made for and shared among medical professionals, such as doctors, dentists, surgeons, anaesthetists and obstetricians in their often cloistered worlds. Our challenge has been to find new audiences for this material.

Sometimes the film content is deemed to be ‘difficult’ and we still restrict some of this sensitive material to medical audiences only. However, we believe that most material has an enduring appeal and can inform and teach us about medical humanities, the human condition and ultimately ourselves.

Over the decades, people and institutions have carefully sequestered away these old films and videos in the hope that someone in the future would be interested in the material. As film projectors have become less common and gathered dust in storerooms, films – not viewed for decades – have been donated to the Wellcome Library. Here, they have been catalogued and then captured in our digitisation programme.

Stills from Understanding Aggression, 1960.

Stills from Understanding Aggression, 1960.

Among the archives, there are films that further illuminate the history of medical film. Medical Motion Picture from 1947 explores this history and explains how to write and shoot such a film. In Understanding Aggression, a film within a film gives an idea of the context in which medical films were made and shown.

To celebrate World Audiovisual Heritage Day, enjoy watching selected films from the collection that take you on a journey through the twentieth century of health on film.

Angela Saward

Angela Saward is curator of the Moving Image and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library.

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