A Reel Tragedy

Kirby made a big mistake moving the film archive to Harvard College Library

Prospective students touring Harvard are regaled with glowing statistics on the unique wealth of Harvard’s collections, from Widener Library to the University Art Museums to the Arnold Arboretum. What they’re not told is how Harvard administrators regularly jeopardize the accessibility of those resources with budget cuts, peculiar staff restructuring and other decisions of questionable sanity. When Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby quietly announced last month that the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) would move—minus its well-respected curator of five years—away from the Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) department and into the Harvard College Library (HCL), film enthusiasts and cinematographically-inclined undergraduates all had to wonder what he was thinking. The decision risks marginalizing—and even damaging—one of the more important collections of original film prints in the country.

The quarter-century-old HFA is one of those institutions for which Harvard has few peers; it’s known by cinema buffs and researchers throughout the country for its extensive archive of nearly 9,000 independent, classic and foreign films—and often the last surviving or best quality print anywhere. Though most visible on campus and within Cambridge for its nightly public screenings and visits from filmmakers, the archive’s more significant role takes place behind-the-scenes in collecting and preserving its coveted collection. Film reels age very poorly, undergoing wear and tear from repeated play and chemical decomposition over time. Under the auspices of conservator Julie A. Buck, the HFA has been restoring thousands of prints, repairing and cleaning severely damaged reels with high-tech equipment in its Watertown facility.

Kirby’s January decision was abruptly announced in an opaque two-paragraph press release from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) that contained little justification for the change. The move to the Fine Arts Library made sense “given the historic synergy between film and art,” the comment argued—a seemingly peculiar claim to make when one is moving an archive out of a department focused entirely on creating and studying art. Moreover, as VES prepares to debut a film studies concentration track in the fall, it is a stretch to think students in film studies courses will be better served by removing the objects they study from their department’s control and placing them under the auspices of an unconnected institution.

Fine Arts Library head Katharine Martinez, like other administrators involved in the decision, says they are “still in the very early planning stages” and will conduct a “thorough assessment of the program.” In the meantime, they say the archive’s previously-scheduled screenings will continue. But given the press release’s emphasis on “intellectual access” and its notable omission of any mention of public film showings, it seems probable that HFA’s cinematheque will be a low priority, if not a candidate for elimination. This would be a disservice to local film lovers, including the students who attend screenings there—and certainly will sever Harvard’s ties with those in the Cambridge community who frequent the HFA. Moreover, discontinuing the screening program next fall would indicate an unfortunate kind of academic elitism in refusing to share a collection of film treasures with the public.

Even if other details about the move remain unclear, a few things can be said with certainty. HCL is cash-strapped and troubled; it has been desperately trying to slash costs, using methods including firing employees. Why one would put an admittedly expensive and complicated operation—even though its budget will be transferred over to the libraries—inside an organization that is having massive financial and structural difficulties is a mystery. Intellectually, it makes little sense to take films studied within VES out of the control of the VES professors, who are presumably the best suited to run such a collection. Some members of the film community have speculated that the move might jeopardize the HFA’s prestigious International Federation of Film Archives accreditation. As one of only 127 members, the HFA is entitled to film loans and collaboration with other archives; losing this would be a great disservice to anyone studying film at Harvard.

If the move was, like many Kirby decisions, designed to reduce FAS spending, even a slight cut in the HFA’s budget risks destroying cultural treasures by neglecting to perform needed preservation techniques. Harvard is caretaker to what are often the last or best-preserved copies of coveted and rare films, and it would be reckless if the libraries were not able to maintain the restoration and purchasing power of the current HFA. Professors often complain about the poor state of Widener’s collections, with critical books missing or misplaced due to inadequate staffing and funding; it would be a shame if the same happened to rare prints transferred into the library. Moreover, it will be a disruptive process to bring the staff and collection of the HFA in line with a new organization and cataloging system.

Sadly, it is impossible to examine the HFA shakeup without fitting it into a consistent pattern of administrators marginalizing the arts, a symptom that jeopardizes Harvard’s stature. The VES department is still recovering, both internally and in public perception, from the firing of former chair Ellen Phelan in spring 2001. Phelan, a distinguished painter who brought in top New York artists, was replaced by Kenan Professor of English Marjorie Garber, an English scholar with no formal background in the practice of visual arts. Now that the VES is having its renowned film archive taken away—just three years after a shakeup in its top teaching staff and again without consultation or consent—it should not be difficult for Kirby and other top administrators to understand why the depth of Harvard’s commitment to the arts and culture is so frequently questioned.

J. Hale Russell ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.