Unidentified photographer, Le dirigeable fantastique (Georges Méliès, France 1906). George Eastman Museum Collection.
One of the great things about working in archives is that there is always something to do to make collections more accessible. For my personal project within The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, I chose to do an independent processing project in Stills, Posters and Paper (SPP) collections. The SPP collections offer materials that correspond to the George Eastman Museum’s massive film collection as well as other areas of film history.
What attracted me to this project was the opportunity to work with several different collections. One of the larger projects I’ve worked on has been the cataloging, rehousing, and relocating of rare production stills from the films of Georges Méliès. Méliès was a French illusionist and a pioneer in the earliest days of cinema. Regarded as the “father of special effects”, most of his films focused on, or at least included, some aspect of magic. Méliès was a theatrical showman at heart and made over 500 films, financing, directing, photographing, and starring in nearly every one.
In 1991, the George Eastman Museum put on a landmark exhibition featuring these rare photos for the first time since their acquisition, A Trip to the Movies: Georges Méliès, Filmmaker and Magician (1861-1938). When I began working with the photos, they were still in their original mattes and not fully searchable in the catalog. My first priority was to establish a workflow. I took pictures of each group of matted photos, carefully removed each photo from its mounting corners, and placed the photos in acid-free folders that I labeled with the film’s title, year of release, and accession number.
In total, I had 49 stills dating from 1902 to 1908. What had originally been stored in four large cases I was able to move to two much smaller archival boxes, freeing up precious space in the vault.
One thing that I didn’t anticipate was being able to talk to the person who organized the exhibition, who happens to be the current Senior Curator of Moving Images at George Eastman Museum. During my conversation with him, I learned that a book was published to coincide with the exhibition. I found it in the museum’s library and used it for reference throughout the project.
With each new collection I work with in the Stills, Posters and Paper area, I am more confident that I chose the right personal project. There were plenty that I’m sure I would have loved, including those that revolved around film. However, my own experiences have brought to my attention how significant supplementary materials are and how helpful they can be in contextualizing both cinema and history, in general. My main objective as an archivist is to make artifacts more findable while also preserving their integrity. The opportunity to work so closely with these collections has enhanced my own understanding of their importance and appreciation of their conservation.
Rachel Behnke is currently pursuing a certificate in media and film preservation at The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation. She has a MLIS from University of Wisconsin - Madison, a BA in Communication from University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, and has interned at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Her interests are public access, special collections, education, and collection management.