Old Film Gets Makeover

February 12, 2013

Library Film Restoration

Stacked among the 200 antique reels of film in the Academy’s Library and Archives is one so unique and valuable that we decided it just had to be restored and made available sooner rather than later.

Exploring the Top of the World: The Second Brooke Dolan Asiatic Expedition for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia [1934-1936], is the only motion-picture record of the famous Philadelphia naturalist’s second expedition to western China and Tibet. The 34-minute, silent, black-and-white film is important because it is a unique record of exploration, travel, natural history collecting, culture clashes, clothing, food, fuel, and the hardships of life and work in mid-1930s central and western Asia.

Clare Flemming, interim library director and Brooke Dolan archivist, believes the film is the earliest known expeditionary footage taken at altitudes above 15,000 feet in the Kokonor Range of the Himalayas. “We can imagine, in this time of climate change, environmental scientists will find this film of interest in terms of snow covering, avalanche evidence, winds, and other meteorological conditions,” Flemming said.

The research significance to the Academy comes from the visual record of scientific collecting during the heyday of the new art of dioramas. The animals collected, skinned, and transported include some of the ones still peering from behind glass in the museum’s Asian dioramas.

During three expeditions to central Asia, the ambitious Brooke Dolan II (1908–1945) and his team collected thousands of animal specimens for the museum. The expedition’s intense difficulties and efforts are well documented in journals, correspondence, photographs, and publications in the Library and Archives.

Museum visitors can see a selection of Dolan’s personal papers, his travel case, a map, and mammal skulls now through March 24 in the bicentennial exhibit The Academy at 200: The Nature of Discovery. A very short snippet of the unrestored film is included in the exhibition as well.

Thanks to a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the gritty, scratchy film is being restored and digitized and will be given a public viewing later this year. Check our online calendar of events for an announcement.

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