A Day at the Archives… Media Archive for Central England (MACE)

Kat Pearson, University of Warwick

7 April 2021


I am a PhD student at the University of Warwick, and my work on Cities of Culture (linked to Coventry’s year in 2021) is co-supervised by Professor John Wyver at Illuminations Media, and also by Dr Clare Watson the Media Archive for Central England (MACE). This collaborative way of working has given me a unique perspective on the work that MACE do. I encounter the archive both as a researcher (using the archive for my PhD thesis) and as a kind of representative for MACE because I am engaging communities in Coventry with the archive’s collections.

Founded in 2000, MACE is the charitable regional film archive and strategic lead organisation for screen heritage in the Midlands. The archive is based at the University of Lincoln but the area it covers is vast, stretching across twelve counties and regions in the East and West Midlands

Because I live in Birmingham, have previously studied in Birmingham and Leicester, and am now based at the University of Warwick – which is actually in the Coventry suburb of Canley! – I am fairly familiar with a lot of MACE’s geographical area. Before the pandemic I made a number of trips to MACE, spending days with their staff and collections to see and understand their work which was fascinating and really beneficial in understanding the inner workings of a media archive. However, rather than only talking about what I’m doing with MACE, I also spoke to Dr Watson (Director of MACE), to find out a bit more about how they work with the research community. She told me that, ‘MACE is proactively engaged in supporting the research environment in many more ways than beyond a simple repository.’ MACE is very interested in collaborating with researchers and students, for instance on research projects and through academic networks, and my Collaborative Doctoral Award comes out of that. In terms of more traditional access, MACE’s collections are available for research, and researchers have access to viewing facilities which can also be used to view external BFI content. Two recent research projects that have used MACE’s collections are Dr Christine Grandy’s article, “‘The Show Is Not about Race’’: Custom, Screen Culture, and the Black and White Minstrel Show,”[i] and Dr Rachel Yemm’s “Immigration, race and local media: Smethwick and the 1964 general election.”[ii]

Supporting access, MACE Senior Curator Phil Leach is an invaluable resource for projects which have public engagement outputs: for example, my supervisor Professor Helen Wheatley’s ‘Ghost Town’ project focussing on Coventry’s screen heritage. All this is to say that MACE’s role extends beyond preservation it is an active and engaged partner foracademic research and can help to translate outputs to the public.

Something that really highlighted to me the importance to MACE of the collections being used and engaged with was the experience of my friend Andy Howlett who produced Paradise Lost,[iii] a film about Birmingham Central Library. MACE worked with him to find footage of the library that fitted with his film and to organise rights clearances. I asked Andy about his experiences of working with MACE to get the filmmaker perspective and this was his response:

When I first searched MACE’s online catalogue for material pertaining to the modernist rebuilding of Birmingham, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content. It was difficult to know where to begin so I got in touch and explained my needs and they very kindly invited me to come visit the archive to see the footage in person. When I arrived they had everything set up and I spent a fascinating few hours viewing everything from regional news footage to construction firm propaganda to polemical documentaries. The formats ranged from 16mm film to VHS and I got a real sense of the materiality of the archive and the incredible level of technical know-how required to maintain and operate it. It was like being given a glimpse inside a treasure trove and I came away with a much clearer idea of what I needed for my film and how to proceed with the licensing process.

Use of archive footage in this way usually attracts licence fees. Unlike some private collections, however, MACE tries to support non-commercial uses of its collection through reduced fees. In Andy’s film the archive footage is an important feature, adding historical context to a building that (at the time of making) was under-threat, controversial and familiar to many as a neglected part of Birmingham’s built environment. When constructed, the building looked and functioned differently, so the footage from MACE helps to contextualise the building and the ethos of planning in the city at different points in time. In support of MACE’s mission ‘to make film, video and digital materials of the region as accessible as possible,’[iv] the archive is very happy to work with film makers, local organisations and researchers like me to make sure that their archives are not only preserved but ‘discovered, watched and enjoyed.’ If you are interested in using material from the MACE collection within a project, just contact the team with your brief and they’ll be able to assist with research, access and that all importance copyright clearance. You can find out more about how to license footage on the MACE website.[v]

As part of my research, I was recently awarded a small grant to run a collaborative project and screening in Foleshill, a community suffering from economic deprivation just outside of Coventry city centre. Due to the impact of Covid-19 the screening was reconfigured to a small socially-distanced event hosted by the Foleshill Community Centre and Social Supermarket with an accompanying online version.[vi] Both events featured the same films from MACE’s collection focused on the local area and on food and drink in Coventry. We also included an introduction on the work that MACE does and the variety of material that exists within their collection. Although we were limited in number of participants and room layout, we even managed to facilitate a socially distanced group discussion afterwards. Having worked on this for over eight months (including a visit to Lincoln and then countless Zoom calls and planning meetings) it was really exciting to hear people’s opinions about these films which had become familiar to me, and which Phil and I had worked so hard to curate. Because these films really showcased Foleshill and Coventry, this screening brought home to me the importance to people of seeing their communities and histories on screen and the fact that this was obviously a very new experience to most of the people in the room. This was made even more obvious by people highlighting the communities and people who weren’t visible in the films that we had chosen and asking for future events to redress this absence.

While it is not often possible to bring people together to watch archive footage in this way, MACE’s collection is very easily searchable on their website[vii] and over 7,000 of their videos are available online. Over the years MACE’s cataloguers have done an impressive job of making the text associated with the films available as part of this search tool, so you can search via various criteria, like date ranges, key words and even whether the films are in colour or have sound. If there are films which you would like to view but which aren’t digitised then you can contact MACE and arrange an appointment for viewing. Depending on the format of the footage you want to view you will either need the help of MACE staff (for example if celluloid film needs to be viewed using the Steenbeck machine) or will be able to view it on your own.

MACE is based on the University of Lincoln campus around a 10-minute walk from the train station and overlooking Brayford Pool. Should you (in non-pandemic times) wish to visit MACE to view their collections, or to view BFI material (which is arranged through the BFI but MACE act as a screening facility) then you will find yourself in the heart of the city. You might also want to visit some of the sights of Lincoln such as the medieval Cathedral, the castle and my personal favourite Steep Hill. I recommend Coffee Aroma on Guildhall Street for excellent coffee and cakes, and the Tiny Tavern if you like a micropub, but as I learned when I stayed in Lincoln for a few days, the city centre pubs and restaurants are strangely quiet in the evenings, especially for a university town.

While I have used MACE for my research and for public screenings, I have also spent hours just browsing their collections online and finding videos which made me think and/or smile. This really short introduction reel which showcases things about Coventry from MACE’s collection gives you a sense of the variety of things they hold, as demonstrated by this short film put together about Coventry’s film history.

MACE’s collection was originally formed around the ATV regional television archive so features a lot of news footage, but now includes a wider range of materials and I have really enjoyed trying to understand Coventry’s history, heritage and different communities through this lens. I considered the fashion trends (and sexist attitudes) of the 1970s while watching this piece about a milkman looking for a wife[viii] and enjoyed seeing some much loved (and now slightly neglected) Coventry architecture in the context of modernity and forward-thinking.[ix]

MACE’s collection has also provided me with opportunities to understand more about Coventry’s history of industry and industrial action. There are lots of moving films about people in various trades especially striking miners and automotive workers, but one of my favourites is a more light-hearted film about a strike over the amount of tea given to workers which both the presenter and a striking worker take great delight in calling ‘a storm in a tea-cup’.[x]

In 2020, while thinking about Black Lives Matters protests across the country, Coventry as a City of Sanctuary, and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, I have looked at the MACE archive to reflect on the history of race in Coventry. I watched films ranging from this difficult to watch 1966 vox pops clip capturing public responses to the first black policeman,[xi] to a film about racial tensions in the 1980s[xii], but also to a celebration of the 2-tone scene and the importance of the ‘Coventry Sound’ to a new generation of Coventarians.[xiii] All of these examples demonstrate that even if the collections at MACE don’t seem to fit with your research at first glance, it is an excellent resource for understanding aspects of socio-cultural histories captured on film.

As I’ve been writing this, I have become increasingly aware that I am essentially composing a love story to MACE! Perhaps because I have spent pretty much all of the last year in the West Midlands, I have found MACE an invaluable resource not only for my work but as a way of encouraging myself to look at the region through fresh eyes.

[i] Christine Grandy, ‘‘The Show Is Not about Race’: Custom, Screen Culture, and the Black and White Minstrel Show’,  Journal of British Studies, 59: 4 (2020) 857–84.

[ii] Rachel Yemm, ‘Immigration, race and local media: Smethwick and the 1964 general election’, Contemporary British History, 33:1 (2019) 98-122.

[iii] Paradise Lost: History in the Unmaking http://paradiselostfilm.uk/ [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[iv] MACE, About MACE, https://www.macearchive.org/about-mace [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[v] MACE, How to License Footage, https://www.macearchive.org/how-license-footage [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[vi] Vimeo, MACE Archive- Foleshill Community Centre Screening, https://vimeo.com/468531427 [Accessed 19 October 2020].

[vii] MACE https://www.macearchive.org/ [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[viii] MACE, ATV Today: 05.02.1970: Coventry milkman looking for a wife, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-05021970-coventry-milkman-looking-wife [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[ix] MACE, Midlands News: 01.05.1962: Opening of Rebuilt Coventry station, https://www.macearchive.org/films/midlands-news-01051962-opening-rebuilt-coventry-station [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[x] MACE, ATV Today: 13.07.1972: Coventry Tea Strike, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-13071972-coventry-tea-strike [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xi] MACE, ATV Today: 08.02.1966: Vox Pops on Black Police Officers, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-08021966-vox-pops-black-police-officers [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xii] MACE, ATV Today: 06.05.1981: Coventry Racial Tension, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-06051981-coventry-racial-tension [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xiii] MACE, ATV Today: 13.12.1979: The Coventry Sound, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-13121979-coventry-sound [Accessed 16 February 2021].

Kat Pearson is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Warwick studying television and UK Cities of Culture.  Because Kat’s work is a Collaborative Doctoral Award, partly supervised by the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), archival television is central to her research. Kat’s thesis will use television programming and archives to look at the two previous UKCoCs (Hull and Derry) and at Coventry’s year in 2021 and evaluate the role of television in placemaking and reputational change. Alongside, and feeding into- this research, Kat is working with MACE to create and run outreach events (including one in Foleshill which was reconfigured due to the pandemic https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/film/tvhistories/blog/foleshillscreenings). These events aim to take the archive out into the community and during Coventry 2021 will hopefully also provide opportunities for new material to be added to the archive. Another strand of Kat’s PhD is working with Professor John Wyver at Illuminations Media (an independent production company) who have been commissioned to make an archive focused documentary about Coventry Cathedral which will be screened in 2021.

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.

Meet, understand, collaborate: A plea to enhance the relations between media archivists and media historians

Brecht Declercq, FIAT/IFTA

24 February 2021


There is no mass medium that has influenced the world more throughout the second half of the twentieth century than television. Television has documented the world in a pervasive manner and in almost all of its aspects. The twentieth century was the first in history to be documented in images and sounds from the start until the end. Of all the ways in which image and sounds were distributed in the twentieth century, television was by far the one with the greatest reach. For anyone who wants to understand the history of the second half of the twentieth century, television is therefore an indispensable source. In view of the above, it could be said that whatever the subject studied – and even if it has little to do with television in particular – television broadcasts are a source that contemporary historians should never skip, if only as an introduction into the subject chosen.

The cliché of inaccessibility

Still, unlike newspaper collections for example, television archives are not always part of historians’ spontaneous reflex when it comes to listing the possible source locations at the beginning of their research. It would make little sense to try to find a culprit for this, but a small analysis of possible causes can help as a starting point for change.

From their side, historians until a few years ago sometimes referred to ‘the inaccessibility of television and radio archives’. On closer inspection, this ‘inaccessibility’ turned out to be a catch-all term for various reasons: not enough archive material could be consulted from home, making an on-site visit necessary, searching the catalogues wasn’t easy to outsiders, or the actual viewing or listening required technical knowledge of the playback equipment.

Of course, television and radio archivists can now debunk the clichés invoked above without further ado. But whether they are justified or not is actually irrelevant. The fact is that they exist and apparently still exert great force. Enough to deter at least a few professional and passionate historians. If television and radio archives want to remove the perception of inaccessibility, then efforts are also expected on their behalf.

Vis-à-vis this amalgam of reasons called ‘inaccessibility’, media archivists can provide another amalgam as an answer, a simple adage that applies to almost all television and radio archives managed by broadcasters: they were simply conceived, expanded and organised for another purpose than serving historical researchers. Television and radio archives managed by a broadcaster are, in principle, primarily concerned with assisting television and radio production. It may be a shame from a scientific perspective, but it is a fact, and due to the evolution from linear to non-linear broadcasting, and the accompanying transition from the delivery challenge to the discovery challenge, this is not going change soon. Research at EBU and DR has shown that up to 75% of the broadcasting time of public broadcasters is filled with images and sounds that are not broadcast for the first time. This percentage is probably even higher for commercial broadcasters. This means that for at least 75% of the broadcasting time, archivist’s work is indispensable to get it filled. In the context of media production, it is also important to remember that the archive is not only concerned with the content that was broadcast many years ago, but also with what is a few seconds old, and even with what has yet to be broadcast.

Broadcast archives and their context

It is not obvious to call a broadcaster’s archive a real heritage organisation. These archives simply do not have the same raison d’être or the same designated community as heritage organisations. It is true that in a few European countries, over the past 15 years independent organisations have been set up with the statutory task of dealing with various aspects of television and/or radio archiving, often including services to scientific researchers, for example historians. In Finland (KAVI) and Dutch-speaking Belgium (VIAA, now meemoo) this happened quite successfully, in Greece (HeNAA), Hungary (NAVA) and French-speaking Belgium (Sonuma) the newly established institutions came back under the umbrella of the public broadcaster before their tenth anniversary.

Nevertheless, in a number of European countries (e.g. Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, all Balkan countries and the Baltic States), the broadcasters themselves are the only real responsible for the television and radio archives in their country. Outside of Europe this situation is even more common. Here and there legal provisions and associated funding are available for broadcaster’s archives to serve historical research, but more often such service depends solely on the goodwill of the archivists. Occasionally a zero-sum logic is still followed, stating that every hour of work, every penny invested in helping historians – or any other kind of scientific researcher – cannot be spent on the tasks that the archive is supposed to do according to its statutes. Given the precarious circumstances in which certain broadcasting archives have to work, the archivists can hardly be blamed. In other words: it is the underlying institutional context that defines the extent to which television and radio archives can assist researchers. Without a clear understanding of this context, archivists and historians may find it difficult to achieve a successful collaboration.

What historians need to know about how a broadcast archive works

What are the benefits of a good understanding between broadcast archivists and historians? And how does that good understanding between researchers and television and radio archivists translate into practice? First of all, good comprehension about what a broadcast archive is and how it works is a great way to debunk misunderstandings and frustration on both sides.

Every piece of good historical research has a chapter discussing the sources used. Evidently who manages the source material also has its influence. It is up to the historian to recognize, understand and respond to this inevitable bias at every stage of the research phase. Shortly stated: historians using broadcast archives have great interest in knowing how broadcast archives work. By raising four fundamental questions, we would like to point to four key aspects of broadcast archival functioning that historical researchers should be aware of.

The first question is the most fundamental: which material is kept and which material is not? To debunk a widespread myth: radio and television archives do certainly not hold everything that has been broadcast. It’s usually much less, but often also much more.  Not every country has a legal deposit, the obligation to preserve a full record of all radio and television broadcasts. Where they exist, legal deposit laws are not always implemented well. In no country the legal deposit started functioning on the first broadcasting day of the first radio or television broadcaster.

Just as every paper archive has got its omissions, no broadcast archive of some age has a complete record of what has ever been aired and often that was not even the intention at the beginning. Experienced scientific users of broadcast archives know the reasons and have passed the stage where they lose their energy to frustration in this regard. But every now and then the popular press still features spectacular-looking headlines about wiped tapes and filled containers. Invariably context, background and international comparison are lacking in such lines. Archivists sometimes tacitly hope that historians will use such articles to raise their voice for more investment in broadcast archives, just to make sure that funding bodies for once get to hear such pleas from someone else than the usual suspects.

On the other hand, many broadcast archives also contain more than what has been broadcast, and that is not always well known either. The following example from Flanders will illustrate this: in the eighties the Flemish television journalist Maurice De Wilde made a remarkable series of documentaries about the collaboration and the resistance in Belgium during the Second World War. For the first time, hundreds of witnesses were thoroughly questioned about their role during the war. Professor Bruno De Wever (Ghent University) rightly calls it “a core collection of audiovisual heritage in Flanders.” Some Flemish historians are aware that VRT not only preserved the broadcasts, but also the rushes, containing information less interesting for the general audience back then, but all the more for a specific audience today. Far less known is that what De Wilde left behind in the archives is even more than the rushes and the broadcasts. For the benefit of a team of secretaries transcribing the interviews in full, De Wilde put a small audio cassette recorder next to the camera. When the witnesses asked to stop the camera, the cassette recorder often went on with its job. De Wilde’s audio cassettes are preserved and digitised by the VRT radio archives. One can imagine the historical value of this off-but-still-on-the-record material.

Once an historian has a good understanding of what a broadcast archive keeps and what it doesn’t, the second question can be asked: which material can be found and which cannot? Historians are not always aware, but as with all archives, also in broadcast archives a certain time passes between the moment of acquisition and the moment the records are processed and entered in the archival databases with a searchable description. This time span can range literally from seconds to decades. It should be clear that the moment of acquisition in broadcast archives is not always the same as the broadcast date. Fortunately, the introduction of media asset management (MAM) systems has significantly improved the acquisition processes of many broadcast archives since about 15 years. Moreover, large-scale digitisation projects have ensured that collections that had been waiting to be catalogued for years are now slowly getting processed. At the same time, every broadcast archivist knows plenty of examples of interesting, missing material, brought in by retired producers – or their widows – often decades after the broadcast.

Related to the above is a third question: which queries will lead to results and which will not? It is in the nature of sounds and moving images that the search terms used to interrogate archival databases are not present as such inside these materials. Without a substantive textual description, audiovisual archive material is simply impossible to find. Despite all the innovation in the creation methods of descriptive metadata, this description task remains the most labour intensive – and therefore the most expensive – of all audiovisual archiving tasks. It is therefore logical and defendable for broadcast archives to vary the level of detail (‘seuil de finesse’) with which they describe their materials. Often these levels of granularity in the descriptive metadata are attributed according to the genre. It is also logical and defendable that these levels are partly determined by the designated communities and the way they mostly use the material. In concrete terms news, sports and current affairs broadcasts are often described with the most detail, because they are internally perceived as the most important content that broadcasters produce and the most likely to be re-used. Entertainment programs such as quizzes or soap operas often receive a far less detailed description. This inevitably creates a bias in any list of search results and historians in particular should be aware of this.

Even if a programme receives the most detailed level of description, the perspective of the archivist is equally important. Of course, documentalists attach great importance to objectivity. But the summa ratio of their work remains the findability for re-use, and the main re-users of audiovisual source material are and remain radio and television producers. Therefore documentalists make their descriptions with the media producers in mind (‘seuil de pertinence’). Once again we bring in a Flemish example, this time from the domain of climatology: in 2016-2017, Professors De Frenne, Verheye and Vangansbeke (Ghent University) were looking for historical data on the blossoming of tree leaves in Flanders for their climatological research. They came up with the ground-breaking idea of using archival footage for this, in particular of the cycling race the Tour of Flanders, held every year on more or less the same route and on more or less the same day. It goes without saying that the VRT documentalists had not included details about the blossoming of the trees in their descriptions of these images. In other words: the archivist’s description can never reach as far as the scientist’s imagination. Archivists nor scientists are to blame, but it does affect every search result.

A fourth and final issue that historians researching broadcast archives should be aware of, is about the form in which the archive material is stored. Many historians expect to find in broadcast archives the sound and image materials as the audience has seen or heard them. But it should be kept in mind that broadcast archives often attach less importance to the form in which the material reached viewers and listeners, than to the form in which they themselves or their footage sales customers can re-use it. Sometimes those two are the same, but often they are not. Especially when resources are limited, priority might be given to the so-called ‘clean’ version of the images, without subtitling, digital on-screen graphics, on-screen displays, news tickers, lower thirds, etc. The same principle applies in many radio archives: unedited interviews or reportage materials, for which the Germanophone world invented the word ‘O-töne’, are much easier to re-use than rendered programmes, especially if they feature music beds or soundscapes. It is correct that compliancy recordings can offer an alternative here, but with many broadcasters these are deleted when the legal retention period has expired.

FIAT/IFTA: promotor of encounters, comprehension and collaboration

In addition to this fundamental need for understanding between archivists and researchers about how a broadcast archive works, a good relationship between the two is useful for another reason. Archivists and historians help each other by contributing stories. Audiovisual archives are full of stories that may interest historians. Conversely, historians often have information, for example from written sources, that may add context and thus enrich audiovisual archive material. As such, archivists and historians can be mutual suppliers of history.

Achieving good relations between archivists and historians is a challenging task. The two seem like natural allies but in practice we often see missed opportunities on both sides. As the global organisation of media archives, with around 60% broadcasters among its members, FIAT/IFTA works actively in this domain.

Within FIAT/IFTA the Media Studies Commission in particular is actively involved in relations between archivists and historians. The core membership is drawn from FIAT/IFTA members, but it is intended that the commission should have an associate membership of those academics and students interested in the use of television archives in all fields of academic study. Currently the group is jointly chaired by Herbert Hayduck, head of Archives at the Austrian public broadcaster ORF, and Dana Mustata, Assistant Professor in Television Studies and Journalism at Groningen University in the Netherlands. The Commission aims to act as a liaison group facilitating academic access to researching television archives and collections, but also as a pressure group, to keep the importance of television archives as historical source material high on the agenda. The group also works as a platform for the international exchange of information and material in relation to archive access and it investigates and promotes the uses of digital technologies in the achievement of these aims.

The two main activities of the Media Studies Commission are the Media Studies Seminars and the Media Studies Grant. The Media Studies Seminars grew out of the Television Studies Seminars that took place in 1999 (Stockholm), 2010 (Paris), 2012 (London) and 2013 (Hilversum). Since the name change in 2016, they have taken place in Paris (2017) and Luxembourg (2019). The aim of the Seminars is always to investigate the connection between television and a historical event and to explore the ways in which archivists and historians can collaborate in their archival and historical research work. In 2017 the events of 1968 were the central topic and in 2019 the Seminar focused on the fall of the Berlin Wall. The presentations often focus on the role that television played in historical events, how these events were presented on television and how they were documented in the archives. Of course, much of the proposed research work is based on television archives material and discussions about access to archival material for research purposes are central to these seminars. Participants in the Media Studies Seminars include not only media researchers working in an academic context, but also television archivists and media professionals. This unique combination leads to particularly fruitful discussions, suggestions for new research topics, and discoveries of new and interesting source materials.

In addition to the Media Studies Seminars, the FIAT/IFTA Media Studies Commission since 2014 awards one or more Media Studies Grants. With this funding scheme FIAT/IFTA annually supports one or more academics in their research at one or more of their member archives. The funds provided cover the research time and travel costs (if applicable) to the relevant archive, as well as the costs associated with presenting the results at the annual FIAT/IFTA World Conference. So far eleven studies have been conducted, presented and published with the support of the Media Studies Grant.

Through these activities FIAT/IFTA tries to actively promote a good relationship between archivists and media scholars, facilitate meetings, promote mutual understanding and encourage collaboration. In this way, we hope that the unique source materials preserved in television archives may enjoy an academic interest proportional to the historical importance of television that this article has taken as a starting point.

Would you like to know more?

Brecht Declercq is the Digitisation and Acquisition Manager at meemoo in Belgium and the President of FIAT/IFTA, the international association of television archives.

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.

The World Assembly of Youth and Archival Serendipity

James Fenwick, Sheffield Hallam University

19 January 2021


This blog post is a reflection on the process of archival research I conducted for my book Stanley Kubrick Produces. Specifically, I want to focus on the idea of archival serendipity: how unexpected results and discoveries in the archive can reframe scholarly understanding of historical objects, figures, and events and even debunk prevailing myths. In the course of researching and writing Stanley Kubrick Produces, I wanted to uncover the truth behind a film that Stanley Kubrick was reputed to have been involved with in some capacity: World Assembly of Youth. But in tracking down archival evidence, I did not find what I was looking for, but instead came across an altogether different story. What I discovered was evidence of Kubrick’s own mythmaking and audio-visual material of a film that might have otherwise been forgotten.

What we thought we knew

I begin my story not in an archive, but at a conference. A room full of Kubrick experts, fans, and researchers. It is July 2019. I am part of an international workshop at the University of Leiden titled Life and Legacy, Studying the Films of Stanley Kubrick. Over fifty delegates from across the world are in attendance. And for five days, we debate, deconstruct, and overanalyse the films associated with Stanley Kubrick. It is an invigorating space, one in which we openly and freely debate the filmmaker’s career, wider production contexts, and of course the inevitable ‘meaning’ of the films. But one conversation stands out: on the third day we discuss ‘the unknown’ Kubrick. We deliberate over what we know, sketching it out on laptops, a blackboard, pieces of paper, anything we can find. Every nook and cranny of Kubrick’s life and career is raked over to find the holes in what we think we know.

The conversation turns to the 1950s and mention is made of a film, World Assembly of Youth. No one asks what the film is about. No one asks what Kubrick did on the film. It is taken as a given that he must have, in some way, been involved in the production of this film. No one has even seen the film. A throwaway remark is made about it being some kind of ‘CIA’ sponsored effort after a quick Google search. And then, after much scholarly digression, we move on, with no more made of the conversation.

Throughout the morning’s deliberations, I had largely remained silent. This briefest of mentions of World Assembly of Youth, what amounted to a few minutes at most, resonated for I was deeply involved in writing about the film and undertaking archival research at that point in time. I was in the middle of email discussions for material to be sent across to me that contained, I hoped, a copy of the film. It was in the process of being digitised. And I was excited because, on reflection, I realise that all of us deep down perhaps believed, even hoped, that World Assembly of Youth was some kind of ‘lost’ Kubrick film. It is why I remained silent. I was nervous at the prospect of what I might find in the coming days.

So just why was it that a room full of some of the world’s foremost Kubrick experts included World Assembly of Youth in discussions of Kubrick’s career? What made us so sure that the film was a Kubrick film? It goes back to a biography written by John Baxter in 1997, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, in which it was claimed that Kubrick had been involved in the production of the film in 1952. Baxter describes the film as being, ‘an early attempt by the US State Department, which sponsored the film, to mobilise college-aged kids to carry out socially worthy projects, an initiative that was to have its pay-off in John Kennedy’s Peace Corps’.[i] Baxter’s discussion of the film is limited, with no reference of his source or of what Kubrick’s role was on the film.

Baxter’s claims seemed to be further substantiated, however, by contemporary reports in the press. A. H. Weiler published a column in the New York Times in June 1952 that summarised Kubrick’s filmmaking activities. I have highlighted in bold the relevant section concerning World Assembly of Youth:

PRODUCER: Proof that a producer-director need not be a man weighed down by years is here in the person of Stanley Kubrick, a New Yorker who is 23 and is currently negotiating for the release of “Shape of Fear,” his first feature and the fourth film he has turned out thus far. The picture, a study of four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, developed from a story by Howard Sackler, a 22-year old friend of Kubrick’s, was made on location in California’s San Gabriel Mountains with Frank Silvera, Steve Coit, Ken Harp, Irwin Mazursky and Virginia Leith, professionals whose names obviously have not been in lights. The youthful producer-director, whose credits already include “The Day of the Fight” and “Flying Padre”, short subjects released by R.K.O., and a short on World Assembly of Youth, made for the State Department, has “a few stories he would like to film.” But his approach to the future seems to be both realistic and wise. “There’s no point in talking about my next picture,” he said, “until we see how ‘Shape of Fear’ does both critically and financially.”[ii]

Weiler’s column only mentions Kubrick’s work on World Assembly of Youth in passing. But importantly, the column seemed to validate what John Baxter had claimed. That Kubrick had worked on another short film, one that was not officially included in his filmography. What this limited evidence seemed to indicate was that there was another Kubrick film out there, somewhere, waiting to be found.

What we didn’t know

With Stanley Kubrick Produces, my aim was to situate Kubrick’s career within wider industrial and production contexts and to do so through archival research. This meant undertaking extensive research at archives around the world: the Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts London, the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in Madison, Wisconsin, the University of Liverpool, the British Library, the British Film Institute, Lambeth Palace Archives, The National Archives, and others besides. Yet, none of these archives contained any information whatsoever about World Assembly of Youth. The only evidence I could find was the fleeting mention by Baxter and a news report in the New York Times. My determination to uncover the secrets of World Assembly of Youth, perhaps to even find a copy of the film, looked to be hopeless.

That is until by sheer chance I noticed details of the film in an archival catalogue at the American Heritage Center (AHC), University of Wyoming. A brief aside to quickly tell you about this archive – after all, this is IAMHIST and archives are what we live for. The AHC is one of the largest non-government archives in the world, with over 90,000 cubic feet of archival material. If you want to find something about American history, chances are you will find something, however small, in the AHC. Its film and media archival collection is vast, with the AHC priding itself on being one of only a few institutions that took seriously the work of preserving the heritage and history of the film and media industries in the 1960s and 1970s.[iii]

I had been consulting the AHC because it houses the Richard De Rochemont papers. De Rochemont was an American film producer, most noted for his work on the March of Time newsreel series. He was also prominent in the early career of Kubrick; Kubrick had initially pitched his first short film, Day of the Fight (1951), for inclusion in De Rochemont’s March of Time series. De Rochemont rejected the film, but took a keen interest in Kubrick’s career, becoming something of a mentor and giving him opportunities to work on television series such as Mr. Lincoln (1952-53).

The Richard De Rochemont Papers are expansive, containing 216 boxes. As the archive catalogue states, the papers are made up of, ‘manuscripts and articles, scripts, research files, and other documents relating to projects produced by and associated with De Rochemont.’[iv] There is material in relation to March of Time and to De Rochemont’s production companies, such as Vavin. The papers also include a large amount of audio-visual material.

I had consulted the Richard De Rochemont papers early on in my research, but I was very specific, consulting personal papers and files relating to the project Mr. Lincoln. Then in spring 2019, I returned to the Richard De Rochemont papers archival catalogue to simply browse. Catalogue browsing is what I do at times, for no purpose other than to familiarise myself with a collection. It’s part of a wider process of archival serendipity that I now embed within my approach to archives generally. Rather than setting out with a hypothesis that I need to prove, I follow the archival evidence down unexpected paths and foreground its material realities: the absences, gaps, coincidences, and unexplained items. In perhaps one of the most poetic accounts of archival serendipity, historian Michael Hoeflich describes it as follows:

We [scholars] set out upon uncharted paths in libraries and archives, never really knowing what we will find. Scientists construct vast and complex experiments in the hopes of proving an hypothesis. But too many brilliant hunches have turned out to be nothing more than signposts on the road to dead ends. It is the lucky scholar or scientist who, setting out with a goal in mind for his or her research, achieves that goal quickly and directly. […] But serendipity and its relations do not come uninvited to the scholar’s table. Rather, serendipity visits those scholars and researchers who set out with open minds and the flexibility of plan that allows them both to recognize the fortuitous discovery and to pursue it to its logical end.[v]

Hoeflich insists upon the need for mental flexibility in the use of archives. By this, he means the need for archival researchers to prepare for unexpected paths that take them away from their planned research. It does not mean that the planned research must be given up, but it does mean being ready to take detailed notes of new findings and ideas that are of, ‘potential worth.’[vi] The process of ‘aimless’ catalogue browsing can aid in this endeavour. It certainly has done for me over the years. And it certainly did in the case of World Assembly of Youth.

As I browsed the catalogue of the Richard De Rochemont papers, scrolling through the hundreds of rows of metadata, I happened to notice the following entry buried within the series ‘Projects 1935-1982’:

World Assembly of Youth scripts, 1952        Box 163

I had not expected to see such an item in the catalogue. I was excited and, spurred on by this serendipitous encounter, I began to search more precisely. There was another entry, buried within ‘Sub-series 4: Information and Other, 1952-1972, undated’:

“World Assembly of Youth” (b&w), undated           Box 9

And there was one final entry, with the series ‘Photographs, circa 1916-1969, undated’, aligned with material from the March of Time collection:

March of Time – World Assembly of Youth, Ithaca, New York, 1951         Box 200

After facing a virtual research dead end, I was suddenly confronted with three separate boxes of potential archival evidence. More than that, one of the items was possibly the World Assembly of Youth film itself. I immediately began the process of contacting archival staff to arrange for duplications of the material. I also requested further information about the archival film footage. After several weeks of emails, one of the archival staff had managed to locate the film and view it. He emailed me his findings:

I had a chance to go into the cold vault to examine the motion-picture film that you requested more information for. It is black and white. It does have a soundtrack (I don’t know if there is actual audio, but there is a track for audio.) It appears to be about 30 minutes in length. The film is titled World Assembly of Youth. The next screen is: A Report on the First Triennial General Assembly of WAY, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. The third credit screen is: Filmed in Conjunction with Young Adult Council U.S. Assembly of World Assembly of Youth. The next screen is: Produced by News of the Day. Then the film starts. The first scene appears to be of an airport tower.[vii]

Perhaps not the most enthralling of descriptions, but still this email furthered my excitement. After further discussions, it was agreed that the film could be digitised and sent across to me. I received that file, along with digital duplications of the other archival material, as I was leaving the University of Leiden Kubrick conference in summer 2019.

The material I received consisted of fifty-three black and white production photographs, a fifty-three-page script, a thirteen-page spot sheet document, and a digitised copy of the film. I have embedded the latter into this blog post for anyone that is curious to watch it.

Figure 1: The opening title of World Assembly of Youth

Now, I will be honest, I genuinely thought in the days leading up to receiving these documents that I had located a ‘lost’ Kubrick film. As such, the first thing I did upon receiving the documents was to watch the film. And as I watched the film, I became increasingly bored, baffled, and disappointed: what on earth was this film, I thought to myself. Obviously, it was a thirty-three-minute-long informational documentary about the first international meeting of the organisation the World Assembly of Youth at Cornell University in 1951. But a lost Kubrick film? As the film came to an end, I gradually started to suspect that everything I thought I knew about the film was in fact wrong. Kubrick’s name was absent from the credits. If he had been involved in the production, surely his name would have been included?

I hoped the surrounding archival documentation would provide a clue as to Kubrick’s involvement in the production. The script contained several pages of credits, but once again Kubrick’s name was absent. He had not produced the film. He had not directed it. He had not operated the camera. Nor the sound. Nor was he present in any of the production stills, some of which were images of the crew.

My disappointment turned to deflation as it dawned on me: World Assembly of Youth was not a ‘lost’ Kubrick film after all.

What we now know and what it tells us

In the days after first viewing World Assembly of Youth, I slowly came to the realisation that my serendipitous encounter had revealed an altogether different history to the one I had expected, and in fact arguably told me much, much more than I had intended to find out.

The fact that Kubrick was not involved in the production in any obvious way did not mean it did not reveal something about the history of Stanley Kubrick. It may well be that Kubrick was involved in the production, say as a stills photographer: the name of the photographer is not detailed in the available archival evidence and we can therefore speculate that it is Kubrick taking the pictures. He was, after all, a photographer by-trade up to 1950, working for Look magazine. Of course, it might also have been someone else that had taken the photographs.

Could Kubrick have been involved in an alternative, as of yet undiscovered production about the World Assembly of Youth? What I have not discussed in this blog post is the history of the organisation, of its connections to the U.S. State Department, or the fact that there were other productions, including radio productions, produced during this time period. Was Kubrick involved in those? I suspect it is highly unlikely. This film is located in the Richard De Rochemont papers with dates that correspond to a period in which Kubrick was closely affiliated to De Rochemont. If Kubrick was involved in any film about the World Assembly of Youth, the chances are that it was this one.

Perhaps more interesting is the way Kubrick clearly used the film, whatever his tangential connection, as a means of self-promotion. If we return to the column in the New York Times quoted above, the likelihood is that Kubrick had supplied the journalist, A. H. Weiler, with written copy. This is something he had done before when promoting Day of the Fight and his planned production of Fear and Desire. Kubrick also talked up his role in the production of Mr. Lincoln to the press. He was not averse to self-promotion or brand management, but made it a central tenet of his producing personality from the very beginning of his career.

Kubrick was building a myth about his prowess and abilities in order to advance his career at a time when he still had little prospects of making it in the film industry. There was no reason for A. H. Weiler to report on Kubrick’s activities other than if Kubrick had supplied the journalist with the story in the first place. As such, the sources that have been used to associate the World Assembly of Youth with Kubrick are unreliable.

The Kubrick myth, however, one propagated by Kubrick himself, still dominates. Yet, by conducting detailed, empirical research, it is possible to begin deconstructing this myth to get at wider truths of who Kubrick was and how his career developed. Of course, sometimes fortuity in the archives is what is needed to be able to break down some of these myths.

There is one final point I want to make about this serendipitous archival encounter. My attempts to discover a ‘lost’ Kubrick film failed, but in the process I succeeded in finding out something else: a forgotten history, if you will, of a film that might have otherwise remained sealed in the AHC Cold Storage. There is a much more detailed story to tell about World Assembly of Youth, particularly its connections with the CIA: that is for another blog post.

There is perhaps also a wider issue here of the failed, or ‘bad’ film histories, that prevail within our profession. By this I mean that archives are filled with such overlooked and forgotten artefacts like World Assembly of Youth, a whole hidden history of films that are not digitised and not accessible to film historians. One of the reasons this is the case is because of the way in which cultural value is ascribed to archives and archival objects. Typically, it is those films and filmmakers that are ‘established’ and the most popular that receive overinvested scholarly investigation. The result of this, however, is the neglect of other histories.

I for one was too focused on Stanley Kubrick and on the film canon, in the process overlooking and even overshadowing forgotten or banal archival objects if they did not serve the wider history of Kubrick’s career. What archival serendipity led to, however, was a realisation that the archive can deconstruct Kubrick and bring to light other histories of film and media that are just as important, even when it is a film as seemingly banal as World Assembly of Youth. And that has been for me the key lesson I have learned in archival research over the past two to three years: that as an archival researcher you have to be prepared to focus on the material realities of the archive, not on the archive as a means of reinforcing existing myths. It is a point more eloquently put by Nancy Lusignan Schultz:

Serendipity, however, requires that the mind be prepared in two special ways: with the flexibility to set aside the object of a quest, and with the wisdom to recognize that a collateral discovery may be equally important.[viii]

So, that is my story, how I failed to discover a lost Stanley Kubrick film, but instead found something altogether unexpected but just as important. And now that I have talked about this film for several thousand words, you might just find yourself wanting to watch World Assembly of Youth or even to read more about. The film is embedded as a YouTube video below, uploaded with the permission of the American Heritage Center. You can read more about the history of the film in Stanley Kubrick Produces, while David Maunders provides a comprehensive of the World Assembly of Youth organisation in his article, ‘Controlling Youth for Democracy: The United States Youth Council and the World Assembly of Youth’ (2003).[ix]

World Assembly of Youth, Richard de Rochemont Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Produced by News of the Day for World Assembly of Youth, Richard De Rochemont.

Directors: D. Corbit Curtis and Richard Millett

Producer: Richard De Rochemont

Camera: George Stoetzel and George Hinners, with Rody Green, Leo Rossi, and T. Rickman

Sound: Anthony Girolami, with Fred Fenton and Abe Landau

Chief Electrician: Alfred Shaw Editors: Lawrence Sherman, Gene Milford, and Robert Collison

Assistant Directors: H. O. Keith Ayling, Robert Daly, Sam Locke

The film received the approval of the Department of State on February 15, 1952.

Link to World Assembly of Youth https://youtu.be/PWaMXsak0tk

[i] John Baxter, Stanley Kubrick Produces (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 51.

[ii] A.H. Weiler, ‘By Way of Report: Of Disney’s Dog Cartoon Feature – Other Items.’ New York Times, June 29 (1952), X3.

[iii] ‘Guide to Entertainment Industry Resources.’ American Heritage Center. https://www.uwyo.edu/ahc/_files/collection_guides/ent-ind-guide-2009-ed_jan_2017.pdf

[iv] ‘Inventory of the Richard De Rochemont Papers.’ American Heritage Center. https://rmoa.unm.edu/docviewer.php?docId=wyu-ah05940.xml#idm45852611782320

[v] Michael Harlan Hoeflich, ‘Serendipity in the Stacks, Fortuity in the Archives.’ Law Library Journal, vol. 99, no. 4 (2007), 813.

[vi] Ibid., 826.

[vii] Correspondence with the author, July 2019.

[viii] Nancy Lusignan Schultz, ‘Serendipity in the Archive.’ The Chronicle Review (2011): https://www.chronicle.com/article/serendipity-in-the-archive/

[ix] David Maunders, ‘Controlling Youth for Democracy: The United States Youth Council and the World Assembly of Youth.’ Commonwealth Youth and Development, vol. 1, no. 2 (2003), 22-51.

James Fenwick is a senior lecturer in media and communications at Sheffield Hallam University. He is the author of Stanley Kubrick Produces (2020), editor of Understanding Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (2018), and co-editor of Shadow Cinema: The Historical and Production Contexts of Unmade Films (2020). He has written numerous journal articles and book chapters about the life and work of Stanley Kubrick that aim to deconstruct the auteur myth that surrounds him by focusing on the material, social and cultural conditions of production of those films with which he is associated. This includes the forthcoming article, ‘Problems with Kubrick: Reframing Stanley Kubrick Through Archival Research’ (2021) for the New Review of Film and Television Studies.

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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