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.

A day at the archives… The Stanley Kubrick Archives, University of Arts London (UAL)

James Fenwick, De Montfort University

5 December 2017


Tucked deep in the bowels of the London College of Communication is a discreet room behind frosted glass. Stepping into this room, first time visitors can be forgiven for thinking they are stepping onto the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). A sterile white environment with bold red furniture, this is the home of UAL’s University Archives and Special Collections Centre and the resting place of the Stanley Kubrick Archive. I have spent many hours at the Kubrick Archive over the past seven years, first visiting it as part of research for my Master’s degree and, more recently, for my PhD research into Kubrick’s role as a producer. But all these years later I still feel a shiver of excitement as I step into the Archive and find myself immediately confronted with the weight of cinematic history that it holds. Small glass cabinets are positioned around the central reading room and contain props and other ephemera from the Kubrick Archive: face masks worn during the orgy sequence of Eyes Wide Shut (1999); a 1964 letter from Kubrick to Arthur C. Clarke proposing a collaboration on a science fiction project; or Kubrick’s personal working copy of the A Clockwork Orange (1971) screenplay, replete with his handwritten notes on inserted music sheets for ‘Singin’ in the Rain’.

 

Figure 1: © Luke Potter, 2007, courtesy of the Stanley Kubrick Archive/Figure 2: © Paul Heys, 2012, courtesy of the Stanley Kubrick Archive

Kubrick retained the majority of his business papers, correspondence, and production documents from the 1960s onwards (the Archive does house material from the 1940s and 1950s, but the documentation for the likes of Fear and Desire (1953) through to The Killing (1956) are more sparse compared to Kubrick’s later films), all filed into a system at his home at Childwick Bury Manor. Upon his death it became apparent that this material was of such cultural historic importance that it needed archiving with a scholarly institution. And it is to the great fortune of the academic community that the Kubrick family allowed the Archive to be opened to the public in 2007.

The popularity of the Archive combined with the small space of the reading room means that anyone wanting to visit is advised to contact the archival team several weeks in advance to secure an appointment (archive-enquiries@arts.ac.uk). Reading times are between 1pm and 5pm Monday to Friday, with boxes being retrieved until 4pm. There are locker spaces for any personal items and I’ve even been allowed to store my suitcase at times. The Archive does have a strict copyright policy and I strongly suggest any researcher wanting to visit read it in advance (here). Photography is not permitted of any items that are part of the Kubrick Archive due to an agreement with the donors. Therefore, a laptop is highly recommended to take as many notes as possible.

I would also strongly advocate planning your trip using the online catalogue (here). The sheer size of the Archive is overwhelming (over 800 linear metres of shelving) and I have witnessed many rookies to the Archive over the years expect to find the Holy Grail to Kubrick’s genius. That is until they realise just how much Kubrick hoarded and how much of it is seemingly trivial in nature (financial receipts, commercial catalogues, dispatch notes, order forms etc). The online catalogue is easy to navigate and is broken down into nineteen separate categories, thirteen of which relate to Kubrick’s feature films, while the remaining six categories include entries such as ‘Unfinished Projects’ (contains material on projects such as Aryan Papers and A.I.), and ‘Documentaries’ (this contains material on the two projects Vivian Kubrick directed: Making the Shining (1980) and the unreleased Making of Full Metal Jacket). I usually make meticulous notes of the boxes that I want to look at in order to form the basis of a particular case study, but it does pay to sometimes select random boxes and to peruse their contents. I’ve often come across surprising revelations this way, such as a letter from Peter Schnitzler, the grandson of Arthur, written to Kubrick in 1959. Peter had visited Kubrick on the set of Spartacus (1960) and the two had clearly talked about the prospect of developing one of Schnitzler’s novels into a film (something not realised until Eyes Wide Shut (1999)). As such, Peter offered his grandfather’s notebooks to Kubrick for further research (SK/9/4/1).

Figure 3: © Paul Heys, 2012, courtesy of the Stanley Kubrick Archive

As a confessed Kubrick obsessive, I take absolute pleasure in coming across handwritten letters from the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier (turning down the role of Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1962)), or Vladimir Nabokov (insisting he must be present at the casting of the title role of Lolita). But that is not to suggest the Kubrick Archive is a depository of materials that will easily illuminate the processes of a Kubrick production. Firstly, and perhaps most frustratingly, is the illegible scrawl of Kubrick’s handwriting, which can be found on many items in the Archive, right down to some innocuous requisition form. Senior Archivist Richard Daniels may be at hand to attempt to decipher Kubrick’s writing, though more often than not I have abandoned such hope in ever understanding what on earth he was writing. Similarly, catalogue entries may build up your hopes of coming across an item that will utterly revise the scholarly approach to Kubrick, only to find that the item is in fact just a dog-eared old note filled with doodles and other musings rather than any kind of Rosebud. I found myself so duped at the beginning of my PhD when I came across a catalogue entry that read ‘Kubrick job list’, with a description that suggested Kubrick had outlined by hand a ‘Kubrick company chart’ (SK/16/2/15). I went into a nervous sweat feeling that this could be it; this could be the key to unlocking my PhD research in revealing Kubrick the producer. I made an advance order of the box and arrived prompt at 1pm. I watched one of the staff wheel out the box on a metal trolley ready for its dissection by me. I opened it up and rummaged through the files until I came to it, ‘Kubrick’s job list’, a slice of yellowing, crumpled A4 paper filled with more of Kubrick’s spidery handwriting. Four company names were listed next to a wonky table that had two black dots placed inside of it. Only two companies were decipherable, Peregrine and Polaris. The file told me nothing. My heart sank and, after several more hours in the Archive, I consoled myself in a nearby Elephant & Castle pub with a tepid beer.

This has pretty much been the pattern of my time spent researching at the Archive. I wade through boxes of dusty, dog-eared business papers while a group of students grin as they open a box that contains a jumper worn by Danny Torrance in The Shining (1980). I have to give myself a moment for pause as I gleefully join the students to gaze upon this battered, forty-year old piece of clothing, momentarily dropping my researcher façade and becoming just a fan. And this exemplifies the two halves of the Archive: one is the exciting journey of new ways to engage with Kubrick’s life and work, to touch the objects and clothes that animated his films, and to experience a tangible connection to the man himself. The other is boxes and boxes of paper that document the laborious process of actually making the films we now enjoy. My thesis has drawn heavily on the financial papers, business and production correspondence, distribution reports and other such material to piece together the managerial and administrative structures and functions of a Stanley Kubrick production. And it has revealed just how difficult and exasperating a process this could be for both Kubrick and for those who worked with him.

The hours I have spent researching have been alleviated by the surroundings of the Archive itself, where at any one time there is a hive of activity. If you like a quiet, peaceful research environment, then the Archive may prove quite distracting. I personally thrive off of the activity and at seeing the various researchers, journalists, and students respond to the items they find. Occasionally, Jan Harlan (Kubrick’s brother-in-law and long time executive producer) may stroll in, or you may encounter a volunteer with an amazing story to tell (Joy Cuff volunteers at the Archive and worked as a model maker on 2001: A Space Odyssey). And there is a team of helpful and insightful archival staff on hand to guide rookies around the catalogue and to lend an insight into the Kubrick mind.

I’d like to end by just pointing out a few helpful travel tips. The Archive is conveniently located next to the Elephant & Castle tube station, served by the Bakerloo and Northern Line. First time visitors may get confused at the tangle of subway tunnels at Elephant & Castle. The easiest thing to do is follow signs for the London College of Communication / the Imperial War Museum. The entrance to the University is set back a little from the roundabout, as if you were to continue onto St. George’s Road. During term time it is impossible to miss – just look for the gaggle of staff and students outside smoking. The University does have café facilities but I prefer to maximise my time in the Archive and leave refreshments until the end of the day. After all, the BFI Southbank is but a ten-to-fifteen minute walk away. What better way to end a day trawling through the Stanley Kubrick Archive than catching a 70mm screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey and finally realising just how much paper went into the making of it.


James Fenwick has been researching Stanley Kubrick’s role as a producer and of those producers Kubrick worked with. He has published several articles on Kubrick, including ‘Curating Kubrick: Constructing ‘New Perspective’ Narratives in Stanley Kubrick Exhibitions’ for Screening the Past. He has recently undertaken a research trip to the Kirk Douglas Papers in Madison, Wisconsin, funded by the EAAS.


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.

Researching World War I On Film

Ron van Dopperen

21 November 2017


The centennial of the First World War has brought about a renewed public interest in this major military conflict.  When I first visited Belgium as a history student in the 1980s there were still veterans around who had been in the trenches. They were there to hear the Last Post under the Menin Gate, and I remember vividly how impressed I was by the ceremony and the sight of all these names of the soldiers who had found an anonymous grave in the Ypres Salient.

As the saying goes ‘Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away’. It is the same with the films of the Great War. Stored on highly flammable nitrate stock, the film legacy of World War I presents scholars and film fans all over the world with an amazing historical source. The footage to be sure is slowly fading away. Unless preserved on safety stock or digitized we are losing by decomposition an invaluable part of our cultural heritage. I recall the first time I went into the nitrate vaults of the Library of Congress in Culpeper, Virginia, with my esteemed fellow author Cooper Graham, looking for lost film of this war. I was feeling like a kid in a candy store. In one of the cans we found footage mentioning The German Side of the War, a movie that had been produced by the Chicago Tribune in 1915. When reeling that film on a viewer we found ourselves in underground bunkers on the Eastern Front, and that’s when we discovered the film had been misplaced. We were looking at a completely different film that was shot by Albert K. Dawson, cameraman with the Austro-Hungarian army!

Albert Dawson directing war films on eastern front 1915

My fascination with these old war films started when as a history student I first read Kevin Brownlow’s book The War, the West and the Wilderness. Kevin is one of the first historians to research World War I films. He also was fortunate enough to interview some of the cameramen who  recorded the Great War, at a time when they were still around. We dedicated our book American Cinematographers in the Great War to Kevin Brownlow because as film historians we all stand on his shoulders. These war pictures, as described by Brownlow, were a window on a different world. This was a time when cars and planes were the latest thing, when women could not vote, when it took ten days to cross the Atlantic, when trench warfare devastated a way of life that belonged to the 19th century. Despite the static shots and primitive camera technique these films and newsreels are truly mesmerizing.

The First World War was a modern war that surprised all combatants as well as the people at the home front just because it was so ‘modern’. It was also the first media war. Film propaganda was not invented by Goebbels but by Wellington House, UFA and the Committee on Public Information in America. Admittedly, wars had been filmed before 1914 but this was the first time in history when the huge publicity potential of this young medium was discovered and exploited.  As I dug deeper into my film research together with my American colleagues Cooper Graham and Jim Castellan I also got intrigued by one simple question: how did these guys do it? How did they manage lugging these cumbersome movie cameras with tripod and all to the battlefield? How did they deal with censors, military red tape and the risks of having their movie camera mistaken for the equipment of an artillery spotter? Why did they even run the risk of becoming a prime target? We were on uncharted territory basically, as most of these cameramen – like the soldiers of World War I – had slowly faded away. We interviewed relatives in the US and many of them did not even know that their Granddad had been a cameraman in World War I. But the stories that we found on their photographic work and their life are definitely worth preserving, just like their films. In some rare instances we could even match their personal story with the pictures that they made at the front. It’s a strange experience to watch a movie that was made one hundred years ago, as seen through the eyes of the cameraman you get to know so much. As a writer you feel transported back in time. For a brief moment you become the cameraman.

Just like these cameramen who had been pioneers in their trade – the first film correspondents – we had to start most of our film research from scratch. I should give proper credits here to Cooper and Jim for their outstanding work on reconstructing Wilbur H. Durborough’s  feature film, On the Firing Line with the Germans, a unique film report made during the German drive on the Eastern Front in 1915. By using the paper roll collection at the Library of Congress they managed to identify each separate scene from that movie, not including the lost scenes that were retrieved in TV documentaries and the World War I Signal Corps collection. This is another aspect of this kind of film research: how to piece all of these segments together? World War I film research is a giant jigsaw puzzle because a lot of contemporary footage has been recycled or cut into stock footage. It takes a lot of patience to get the bigger picture.

Sniper attack in Russian Poland. Scene from On The Firing Line with the Germans (USA 1915)

The last years researching World War I film have been a great ride. We have brought back on the screen Durborough’s war film which has been wonderfully restored by the Library of Congress. The premiere at the film festival of Pordenone together with Kevin Brownlow as a special guest was just great. This kind of film research never really stops, so after publishing our book we started a weblog Shooting the Great War which has the latest updates on the latest World War I films that we have found and identified. The blog has been seen now by over 100,000 people. So, we definitely have an audience out there!

Video trailer for Shooting the Great War:


Ron van Dopperen studied history at the University of Utrecht (Holland) where he wrote his Master of Arts Thesis on the American World War I documentary films. Since 2011 he publishes on World War I film, starting with a series of articles for Film History journal. He is also co-author together with Cooper C. Graham of Shooting the Great War: Albert Dawson and the American Correspondent Film Company (2013) and together with Jim Castellan and Cooper Graham of American Cinematographers in the Great War (2014) which was sponsored by the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

Weblog: http://shootingthegreatwar.blogspot.nl


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.

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