The City Archive: Expect the unexpected

Leen Engelen, LUCA School of Arts and the Institute for Media Studies (KU Leuven, Belgium)

15 December 2017


For many years, I have been doing media historical research. My preferred research topic is visual culture (film, picture postcards, posters…) in the 1910s and 1920s. I have thus visited many different kinds of archives in several different countries. From the Belgian National Archives in Brussels to small unopened private and company archives, stored in dusty boxes in basements or attics. I would like to write however about my experience in city archives, which I came to know as treasure troves full of unexpected gems.

Of houses, police regulations and movie posters

Being a historian is hardly ever just a job. When I moved house a few years ago, I decided to check on the history of the house (built in the post-World War I era) in the local city archive. I requested the files and went to the reading room to look at the building plans and correspondence between the urban planning department and the architect. While looking at these documents, I dropped my eye on a series of film posters hanging on the wall somewhat hidden behind the registration desk. Upon inquiry, the librarian told me they had a whole bunch of these in the archive and if I cared to take a look at them. They were well-preserved in acid free folders, but were otherwise not inventoried. My interest was raised and I made an appointment with the head archivist. She showed me the whole collection and it turned out they had hundreds of posters in their vaults. A police regulation dating back to 1892 stipulated that one copy of every poster hung at the official billboards throughout the city had to be deposited at the municipal administration to enable verification by the police. The aim was to prevent offensive, illegal or inflammatory posters from provoking public outrage. Next to cinema posters, the collection included political posters, election propaganda, theatre and music posters. Because of the un-inventoried state of the archive, only few researchers had shown interest in this particular collection and virtually no one had looked at the film posters. This unexpected find initiated a collaborative project called ‘Cinema Leuven’ with the Leuven City Archive and the Heritage Department which resulted, two years later, in a book, an exhibition on the city’s cinema history at the local theatre, several student research papers and a completely inventoried and digitized film poster collection accessible online (www.cinemaleuven.be).

Figure 1: source: Leuven City Archive

Figure 2: source: Leuven City Archive

Talk to the archivist

After this experience, my interest in city archives was sparked. A few years later my colleague Roel Vande Winkel and myself embarked on a project that came about thanks to a wakeful and enthusiast archivist at the City Archive in Antwerp (also called Felixarchive because of its location in an old harbour warehouse called ‘Felixpakhuis’). We both had done research at the Felixarchive for cinema related research projects before and one day the archivist pointed my colleague to the archive of the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp (Koninklijke Maatschappij voor Dierkunde van Antwerpen, KMDA), the society that operated the Antwerp Zoo since 1843. Not exactly an archive media historians like us would usually be interested in. What we found, when we took a closer look, however was quite amazing. A near complete business archive of ‘Cinema Zoologie’, the movie theatre that had been opened at the zoo’s premises in 1915 and remained in service without interruption until  1936. Not only did the archive hold detailed weekly programs (a treasure in itself for those interested in new cinema history), we also found administrative documents and correspondence with distributors, local authorities and musicians. The icing on the cake, were letters from members of the audience, commenting on specific films, on other members’ behaviour (unruly children, passionate youngsters or unfaithful husbands and wives). We were utterly surprised to find this in an archive that was produced by a zoological garden and hadn’t it been for the archivists, we probably wouldn’t have found out about this archive at all. Thanks to this large variety of documents, we have since been able to inventory the complete film and music program of ‘Cinema Zoologie’, from its founding in 1915 until it closure in 1936, and to reconstruct its complete history. From its founding during the German occupation of Antwerp in the First World War (which we published here), throughout the roaring 1920s and the transition to sound, to its decline due to increasing competition in the film exhibition sector in the years preceding the Second World War. We were not the only one to be surprised by the story of Cinema Zoologie. When we approached the Royal Zoological Society (that still operates – among other things – the Antwerp zoological garden today) in 2015, they were unaware of this particular part of the Society’s history. Their interest was sparked by this unusual story and we are currently setting up a Cinema Zoologie exhibition at the zoo’s premises (to be opened in 2018 to celebrate the Garden’s 175th birthday), a book publication and an online platform providing access to the archive and the programming database.

Figure 3: FelixArchief, Antwerp City Archive, Royal Zoological Society Antwerp

Boxes, Chocolate Wraps and Cinema Programs

While working with the Cinema Zoologie archive, the archivists mentioned another collection they had recently started working on: the papers of a man listening to the remarkable name Télésphorus Buyssens (1879-1945), an Antwerp railway administrator with a keen interest in… almost everything. It seems like throughout his life, he kept every piece of paper he could get hold of. This resulted in over 50 boxes filled with chocolate wraps, advertising brochures, bills, envelopes, letters, announcements, flyers, packages, political pamphlets… and film programs. This huge pile of papers (an optimistic archivist called it ‘papierotheek’) includes ephemeral documents that don’t usually make it to archives but that are relevant for researchers in many different fields: from economic historians researching price fluctuations of consumer goods to graphic designers and art historians interested in the design of wraps and packages of everyday products. His letters, many of which were written during the First World War, have been used by the archive for their public history project on the life of ordinary Antwerp citizens during the Great war. The collection of more than 1500 cinema flyers of over 70 different theatres in Belgium (mainly Antwerp) and France (the north), dated between roughly 1908 and 1942, is very valuable for cinema historians. Especially for the first decades of the 20th century this type of ephemeral sources rarely survives in such quantities. So once again, talking to the archivist brought very interesting and unexpected material to our attention. And who knows, the next project.

Figure 4: Felixarchief, Antwerp City Archive, Archive Télésphorus Buyssens


Leen Engelen is a media historian at LUCA School of Arts and the Institute for Media Studies (KU Leuven, Belgium). She is vice-president of IAMHIST.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Archives