Thank you, Giovanna, for agreeing to talk to me about feminism and the archive. We thought it was important to talk to archivists rather than merely having scholars write about the archives and their changes (or not!) in recent years, and also to ask [archivists] about their relation to feminism. I would like to start by asking you what your role is here at the Nederlands Filmmuseum [EYE Film Institute], what your professional position is.
I am currently the chief curator here at EYE. This is since 2009. Before that, I was working at the Nederlands Filmmuseum, which became EYE at the end of 2009. Since 1997, I have worked in several roles. I started as a collections specialist, a junior position working on selecting films from the collection for preservation and restoration. I moved on, becoming the head of the collection department. In 2004, I become a curator. In 2009, I was asked to become the chief curator.
As the head curator here at EYE, what is the kind of role you take on?
I mainly focus on the general long-term lines of the collection policy. Every four years, we write a new policy. It has a lot to do with the subsidy system here in the Netherlands. I focus a lot on writing this policy and supervising how this policy is applied in practice.
What is this policy? [Is it] how you collect or what you collect?
How we collect, select, preserve, restore, and show the collection. Also how we do research on the collection. So it has various aspects. I am happy that for the first time we have translated the collection policy into English, and it is online.1 Our collection policy to 2017 has been decided, and it is public. Still, it is an ongoing process. When we wrote the collection policy that we follow now, it was 2012–13, so many things have changed and are still changing. We [therefore] need to keep discussing the current policy and also start preparing the new one. By 2017, it has to be discussed, decided, written, and submitted to the Ministry of Culture (our main source of subsidies) to get funding.
For instance, some aspects of the current policy state the collection areas we give priority to. We have decided for this period to focus on silent film, which is traditionally a very strong part of our collection. We will also focus on experimental film (both Dutch and international) as well as Dutch film (which is, of course, our raison d'être, if you will, as we are the only center for cinematography in the Netherlands) and on international film. This latter is a bit of a container name. Within the international collection, we think very much in terms of classics, new waves, and auteurs. We also try to discover new and interesting aspects of the international collection that have not been studied or researched before.
Another important aspect of our current collection is to integrate the approach to the film collection with the so-called film-related collection. So we try, when we decide to preserve an entire collection—and of course, the example of the [Jean] Desmet collection2 is an easy one—to not look only at films. We also look at the archive of Jean Desmet. We look at posters, stills, and all the film-related elements in the collection. We try to do that with all the collections we decide to study, preserve, and present.
Have you seen a change over your almost seventeen years here in terms of what your policies are? You said silent film, experimental, Dutch, and international film were your focuses. Has that always been so?
In some ways. I think in the past it was even more compartmentalized, focusing much more on the origin of the material. At the time I started, we were mainly looking at production countries as categories, which made sense at the time, and still makes sense somehow when you are trying to collaborate with other archives around the world. I think the main change has been that we have tried to describe the various collection areas in ways that are understandable to the outside world, i.e., the public rather than only the professionals. This is maybe the biggest change—the biggest cultural change—in archival work in the past ten years. That is, realizing the importance of making our practice, our activities, understandable for the outside world. And by the “outside world,” I mean not only the Ministry of Culture, but also the general public.
I think this is one of the most evident consequences of digitization. With digitization, there is much more involvement: the public understands that they can have direct access to heritage in general (and consequently to archives), so there are many more questions being addressed. These concern what we collect, why we collect, what our selection criteria are, why we show these films, and so on. In that sense, our collection policies have, throughout the past fifteen years, changed toward making all those criteria transparent and understandable for a general public.
You have to change in relation not only to transparency, but also to how you are going to do that. Every four years, do you also change your methods? Because the technology—I mean digitization—[also changes].
The practice of preserving, restoring, and digitizing films has changed enormously; there is no doubt about that. It shifted at first gradually, but then in the last couple of years quite dramatically toward the digital. This has had a tremendous impact on making the collection accessible. The fact that we now have seven thousand titles of the collection digitized means that theoretically all those titles could be put online. In practice, it is not the case, because there are still many copyright limitations. The films that are in the public domain—or the few collections we own the rights to—we can publish online. The rest we cannot. But still, the digitization process has made archives more accessible than has ever been the case.
And do you think [the digitization process has also made archives] more important culturally? [Do they get] more relevance or visibility? We were talking before about films being added to the idea of Dutch national culture or international culture.
I think so, definitely. And it is not only so for film archives, but for all heritage institutions, with digitization and making collections available online. The other side of the coin is that now we need to be much more transparent about our selection criteria, why we preserve certain collections rather than others. On the one hand, that is a very healthy development, because I think we need to be able to explain why we do what we do to anybody who asks. On the other hand, sometimes it makes it hard to invest time, money, and resources in something that is not so well established in terms of cultural importance.
That would be a problem, wouldn't it?
Yes. So if you think, again, of the example of the [Jean] Desmet collection. This collection has been preserved in its entirety for many years and now has been completely digitized. A couple of years ago [in 2011], it was inscribed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register. Only thirty years ago, the importance of the collection was not widely recognized. So it was the role of the curators at the time to take on the collection, to take care of it, to make sure it was properly preserved. So in that sense, curators make sure that this kind of finding keeps happening. [Sometimes archives preserve] something that curators don't even know is there until it becomes the source of new research and presentation many years later. This means that sometimes you have to take a chance on something. That is becoming more difficult when you have to explain why you are spending time and money on a project.
Yes, a nationally significant project, like the Desmet collection, thirty years ago, luckily began to get this [care] . . . but it would be hard, wouldn't it, to explain or justify a decision around something else. You would have to do the research. . . .
Yes. But in general I am optimistic. I think that the new technologies, and the new culture of access that has been very much spurred by digitization, are bringing very good things to archives and heritage institutions. They bring new means for presenting, new means to be visible and accessible. On the other hand, they are also posing new challenges. Curators are not, let's say, traditionally used to explaining themselves.
And also in a four-year plan. Your project has to fit rationally within something that you are not sure is right.
And sometimes you have to invest in something that you are not even sure will become relevant. In that sense, it is like fundamental research. You don't know if it will end up being relevant.
Do you think that is one of the biggest changes? The film archive—traditionally you would think of it as a museum, with its objects—becomes genuinely a space for research, doesn't it, with yourself as a researcher?
I think so. Combining scholarly research and work in the archive is very important. If I look at my own experience, it is pretty much the only way I could have done it, because when I was “only” a film archivist, I was missing research, and when I was doing only research [the experience was vice versa]. . . . In that sense, it has informed some of my core ideas about bridging practice and theory and the interplay between the two. For media studies and film studies in particular, [this exchange] is very important.
You are right. I think of myself as a film historian, yet I never truly address the fact that the point at which I started film history as a serious “project,” in the mid-1990s, was the time when we started [in film studies] to experience this digital turn, or whatever we would like to call it. And that is absolutely fundamental. But in terms, then, of research and the archive itself changing, what about how we think (or might think) of gender? Because obviously, with early film, attention was given (at least for me, in the 1990s) to women and questions of the visibility of women [in silent film]. Do you think that has changed? Do you see gender as being more evident in your own collection and in how you curate, or do you think it was [also] available to me and so therefore I started that work?
To be honest, gender has never been a leading theme in my professional work, although it has always been an issue I have been aware of. I mean this in terms of my professional life, collaboration, the people I work with and have worked with throughout the past eighteen years in this institute. [At EYE,] I have worked with one male director and two women directors, including our current director.
Yes, and right now your CEO is Sandra den Hamer.
Of course, gender is not something I spend too much time reflecting on, but I could see differences, definitely. I don't think we've ever explicitly formulated gender as a form or a theme in our selection, acquisition, or preservation [policies]. Although, now that I am talking about it, one of the first programs I curated was called “Heroines: Elegant and Dangerous.” To be honest, it was probably quite an exception in our programming history to have a program focusing on the film heroine.
So in the end, it is a question of making the materials available and accessible within the policies that you write, build, and guide. And then it is up to the researchers to make do, really, in [matters of gender], yes?
What about access to the institute itself? This is a really beautiful new building, and you just gave me a lovely tour of it. Can you talk a little about the kind of curatorial space you have created, and about access as well?
This building has four movie theaters, where we have both analogue projection and digital projection. We also have, for the first time, a big exhibition space, where we have four temporary exhibitions a year. We have another space [the Panorama] that is more like a permanent exhibition space for the collection, which is freely accessible. It is divided into an installation, a full immersion in the collection with 360 degrees of projection, and a number of ports where the collection is accessible based on a selection of several hundred film titles. In the Panorama, there is also an exhibition of film equipment, apparatus from pre-cinema up to today, which includes, for example, a smart phone. This part is freely accessible and very much targeted for a general public, for families. To be honest, I have seen all kinds of public walking around that space, which is something I am very happy about because I think it is really the first encounter for a general public with the collection. This was very much the idea behind it. Not to focus too much on education; we did not want to really educate the public.
Even though you are.
Even though. But, for instance, the choice of making the 360-degree installation the centerpiece of this space was really just to make sure that the collection would make a good first impression on the public, a good visual impression.
A lot of that impression—because I myself was a bit taken by it—is when you walk in. You are overwhelmed but also fascinated. That, again, is digital, isn't it? It is interesting how we can talk about online access and talk about the decisions you have got to make about preservation and things, but even within the physical space, the digital really has changed how you engage with this space as an institution.
Absolutely. An installation like that wouldn't have been possible before the digital. And even the first digital means that were low resolution would not have had the same effect. This is true even with the Desmet exhibition, which is on right now: as you will see, we make use of many big projections in the exhibition space. One of my first reactions to it [was to realize that] only five years ago we could not have done it, because the quality of the projections would have not been enough, substantial enough, for such a big exhibition space.
Also, now that the technology changes digitally, so, too, does access to this “museum space.” It completely changes your idea of what you are coming to see. It is more engaging, it is perhaps more fun, you know; you can bring your family along. That also impacts [how we think of gender]. I said before [that] perhaps there isn't a “feminist archiving,” but the idea of having families, of course, is important. There are mothers, fathers, and children. That idea of access [to the archive] has, in a sense, not a feminist aim but an inclusivity [goal] in the end.
Perhaps, instead of talking gender, we could begin with a popular audience, a mass public.
Absolutely. In that sense, definitely. This building attracts many more people than we could attract to the smaller, older location [the Nederlands Filmmuseum]—and I am talking about five, six times as many, because we used to have eighty thousand a year there and we now have more than four hundred thousand visitors a year. So the change is really big. But [the new EYE building] is also important in terms of the different classes [of people it attracts]. The old film museum would attract mainly cinephiles and culturally interested, higher-educated members of the population. Today [our archive] is definitely more family-oriented and much more open to a public broader than only [the inhabitants of] Amsterdam. The fact that we are across from Central Station makes it possible for people coming from the rest of the country to come to EYE.
So the idea [was] to open up as a physical space at the very moment that all your collections were online. There's [so many] ways to engage. I was doing that also in Australia, with the materials you have online.
Yes, definitely. And online, the ambition is to use the platform to reach the people who could not come here. This works on two levels, with the professionals who really want to study the collection and with a more general public. And also a new public. That is another aspect that we try to develop, for instance, with some of the new initiatives. We've had a couple of competitions, [such as] a celluloid remix.
Yes, the mashup. I think that is a great way to make people aware that early film is not only really interesting, but also something you can be engaged with, as an actual product itself. That has completely changed. We could not have done that before.
Well, a few people could. I mean, there have been a few found-footage filmmakers who had access to the archive, but it was a very limited and rare—
—a rarefied kind of thing. Also, with younger kids, adolescents, when you think of that culture, there is no way we could have asked them to engage [in the archive] without having to throw history at them, yes? That is really interesting.
Quickly, just in conclusion, what are the kinds of projects where you see your work going? I know that right now you are working on color, yes?
There are a couple of projects that are very close to my own expertise and interest. One is color in silent cinema, which was my kind of first love and the reason I came to Amsterdam, to the Nederlands Filmmuseum, while I was a student in Bologna in 1995. I came to do research on color in silent film. At the time, I was very lucky to be able to be involved in the organization of the workshop “Colour in Silent Films,” which was held at the Nederlands Filmmuseum in 1995. And twenty years later, in 2015, we organized a conference, “The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema,” in collaboration with Sarah Street from Bristol University and Joshua Yumibe from Michigan State University, who run the Leverhulme Trust research project “Colour in the 1920s: Cinema and Its Intermedial Contexts.” This conference [took] place at the end of March . With Joshua, Yumibe, Tom Gunning, and Jonathon Rosen, for the past three years, I have also worked on a project: color in early cinema up to 1914. It was Tom's idea to put together an illustrated book with a selection—a large selection—of film frames from colored early films.
In terms of color and this project you are doing now: when I think of color (as a film historian), I always think of the archetypical image of the female labor that went into [the making of] silent film. This is often overlooked. In your own project now, what are you looking at in relation to color?
In the book I am working on with Joshua Yumibe and Tom Gunning, Fantasia of Colour in Early Cinema, I focus mainly on the archival life of films [figures 2–6].3 So the way they have been preserved and restored, and how they are presented today in both traditional settings in the cinemas and installations like the panorama we just discussed here, and also online. Joshua has written an essay for the book focusing much more on historical systems. He spent quite some time discussing the way the [films] were colored originally. And he did extensive research on how the women employed by Pathé, especially in France, lost their sight in coloring these films.
When I was doing research on color in silent films, twenty years ago, I spent some time conducting research into the original techniques and so on. I never forget to mention to my students that if we have these colors, it is because an army of women spent so much time working—handpainting them, or with the stencil machines.
Also in that sense, when you were talking at the beginning about how film archives really aren't just about the films but contain posters or photographs and everything else, [women coloring film] is a good instance of how that “other” material informs us in a really obvious way today. I am not saying anything new, and I have not yet read Joshua's essay, but [the archive] can really show us labor. We can learn about practices, which I am sure you probably knew about twenty years ago.
Absolutely. I think in that sense online platforms make it possible to show a film next to a number of digitized materials and [so expand the archive]. In that sense, the time-consuming work that a researcher could do, spending months in an archive, theoretically can be done by anybody accessing all the different collections in an archive. That said, this is still a dream because only a small fraction of collections have been digitized. This is true even in an archive like ours, where we have a scanner and we have the means to digitize films. As I said, only seven thousand titles have been digitized of the forty thousand we hold. So there is still a long way to go. And the same is true for posters and stills and other archival materials.
In a sense, then, we are still very much at a crossroads, aren't we? No matter how much you say that, okay, in 2017, you have a new policy, and everything goes so fast, it is interesting to think that actually we are at a turning point but still have a lot of work to get done.
Absolutely. And we are making mistakes, I am sure. The way we digitize material today, for example. Probably in a couple of years we will think: “We focus so much on resolution. Actually we should have digitized everything 3D, not only to get the image, but also to get the physical material of the original films.” And then again, when we get to that point, we will probably have the chance to redigitize only a couple of examples in that way: Metropolis, definitely, and a few others.
It sounds scary. It probably poses more questions than it answers in the end.
But that is a good thing because it means we are actually engaging historically.
Absolutely. We have a chance to revisit choices we have made in the past, to rethink even categories and ways we approached the collection in the past.
So epistemologically, in terms of how we think of history, film history, and our own social/cultural history, that is what has come to the front. Thank you, Giovanna.