200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 126: “Saving an Archival Treasure ”

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degrading nitrate film reel and archival photograph of Fenimore Johnson underwat
The decomposing film reel for Undersea Gardens (left, courtesy of ColorLab) and an underwater still showing E. R. Fenimore Johnson (right, Ewell Sale Stewart Library & Archives Coll. no. 2009-010-004).

Saving an Archival Treasure

Cellulose nitrate is the plastic material from which motion-picture film was made in the earliest days of movie production in the 1890s through the 1940s. Flexible, transparent, and strong, this nitrate film provided cinematographers and amateurs with the raw material that made their professions and vocations possible. The catch is that nitrate film is extremely hazardous when in contact with skin or eyes or when ingested or inhaled. The chemical industry’s material safety data sheet describes it as an “unusually severe fire hazard,” and, when dry, it ignites readily and burns explosively. It is explosive in the presence of open flames and sparks; it may undergo hazardous decomposition, condensation, or polymerization; and it may react violently with water to emit toxic gases. Nitrate film is not exactly the type of material we want in the Academy Archives.

But what about all of those historic films—those one-of-a-kind documents that record people, environments, and events long gone—that are preserved in archives around the globe? The Academy Archives is home to an extraordinary motion-picture collection of nearly 400 films that document Academy expeditions and collecting trips throughout the 20th century. One of those treasures is Undersea Gardens, one of the earliest underwater films made in 1938 by E. R. Fenimore Johnson, a former trustee of the Academy. In 2009, the Academy received a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) to rescue and restore Undersea Gardens, which was captured on nitrate film. The grant came just in time—the nitrate film reel of Undersea Gardens was eating itself alive, crumbling and disintegrating at a steady pace.

What other treasures are in the Academy Archives?

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