Report: ‘Hidden Archives: Marginalised and Alternative Collections and Practices’, IAMHIST Symposium, Irish Film Institute (Dublin), Tuesday 30th January 2024

Ellen Scally, University College Cork, Ireland

25 April 2024

On 30th January 2024, the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in Dublin played host to the one-day symposium Hidden Archives: Marginalised and Alternative Collections and Practices, which was the result of a collaborative effort from IAMHIST and the Department of Film & Screen Media at University College Cork. The IFI was a fitting venue for a programme which promised some exploration of the relationship between archivists, archival institutions, and researchers in working to bring attention to marginalised collections. Another benefit of being hosted by the IFI was that we got to spend the day at the hub of cinema in Dublin in lively Temple Bar, and those of us who also attended the IAMHIST masterclass the previous day were lucky enough to get a tour of the Irish Film Archive, including an exclusive look at some of their extensive collection of items relating to cinema in Ireland!

Figure 1: The Irish Film Institute (IFI) Archive. Courtesy of Paul Lesch.

The need for strong collaborative relationships was foregrounded in the first presentation of the day from Kasandra O’Connell of the IFI and Sarah Arnold of NUI Maynooth, who spoke about the ongoing collaborative project Women in Focus: Developing a Feminist Approach to Film Archive Metadata and Cataloguing. O’Connell spoke of the limited resources for the archive to undertake major research projects independently without the help of an external project partner, while Arnold later acknowledged that the process of identifying existing collections in the Irish Film Archive was reliant on O’Connell’s in-depth knowledge of the catalogue. One of the main aims of the project was the creation of a toolkit for developing more effective and accessible approaches to archiving the work of women filmmakers. This toolkit has since been published (you can find it here) and the next stage of the project will focus on the rolling out of the toolkit across institutions in the UK and Ireland.

Working with the East Anglian Film Archive, the project has recognised the work of several significant collections by women filmmakers, even discovering one previously unknown collection by chance – the work of Cork-born amateur animator Flora Kerrigan.

Attendees were treated to a look at one of Kerrigan’s animations, “Epitaph” (1961), an abstract, black-and-white short which was clearly the work of an accomplished animator. Projects such as Women in Focus tantalise with the prospect that, particularly when it comes to amateur cinema, there is so much we haven’t yet discovered.

Figure 2: Kasandra O’Connell and Sarah Arnold presenting on the ‘Women in Focus’ project. Courtesy of Paul Lesch.

Next, we heard from Brónagh McAtasney and Stephen Newe of Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive (DFA), who introduced some of the innovative ways in which the archive is engaging the public and supporting new creative uses for archival materials. This includes the archive’s work with the European Research Council-funded Reel Borders project, which has resulted in the production of four documentaries shot by local, non-professional filmmakers which tell personal stories of life on the border (you can view the films here.) The DFA launched in 2000 as a fully digital, free public access resource, and in keeping with this spirit of engaging with the community, it has established a strong record of projects which platform the voices and perspectives of those in the community which may have otherwise gone unheard.

Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the day was a keynote address from Andrew Burke of the University of Winnepeg on working with film and television archives in Canada. We heard about some of the challenges in accessing material through Library and Archives Canada, and there were lots of nodding heads in an audience all too familiar with some of the common frustrations in gaining access to institutional repositories. While this can be problematic at the best of times, Burke’s talk raised questions about the ways in which restrictive policies that prevent access to records and information can affect marginalised communities and their ability to reckon with the past, particularly somewhere like Canada which has a legacy of institutional mistreatment of indigenous peoples (Jennifer Dysart is one indigenous filmmaker who has addressed these themes in her work.)

Figure 3: Andrew Burke, presenting on Library and Archives in Canada. Courtesy of Cynthia J. Miller.

Following lunch in the IFI Café, and the welcome opportunity to catch up with some fellow attendees to discuss the morning’s rich program, it was time to return to our cinema-screen auditorium for the second half.

Offering one possible answer to the question of how we might approach difficult colonial histories were Leen Engelen and Linda King of the CONGO VR project. The project uses VR technology to reimagine an object; in this case, a rare panorama of the Congo commissioned by Leopold II and first displayed in 1913. Besides overcoming the physical problem of how to display the panorama, which is incredibly heavy and vulnerable to damage, its restoration as a VR experience not only mirrors the original experience of viewing the object, but it allows for the inclusion of important contextual details and new creative interventions which invite the user to engage critically with this artefact and its complicated history. See more information on where to catch the CONGO VR Exhibition here.

Figure 4: Leen Engelen presenting on the CONGO VR project, with Linda King. Courtesy of Paul Lesch.

The final presentation from Llewella Chapman returned to some of the themes touched on by O’Connell and Arnold at the beginning of the day, in this case, relating to the tracing of women’s contributions to video game development while offering a case study of the Tomb Raider video games. Through unofficial fan-run archives, Chapman has managed to find references and interviews relating to two women who worked on the original 1996 game. There seems to be a blind spot when it comes to the archiving of video game ephemera as historically significant objects considering the popularity of these media. Fan tributes and collections have become incidental archives which can enrich our understanding of cultural products like video games, but further research may be affected by the precarity of these unofficial web repositories.

Llewella Chapman presenting on video games, archiving and gender. Courtesy of Paul Lesch.

The event ended on a roundtable with Ciara Chambers in conversation with Paul Lesch (Luxembourgish Ministry of Culture) and Colm McAuliffe (the Make Film History project) on some of the key challenges of working with, and making accessible, alternative collections. The discussion centred on accessibility in relation to the curation and creative reuse of archive materials for public exhibition, with McAuliffe touching upon the issue of ethics in the creative reuse of audio-visual materials, while Lesch offered some insight into his own archival practices – specifically in relation to an extensive personal collection of Alfred Hitchcock paraphernalia!

The symposium invited us to reflect on the various challenges involved in researching or working with peripheral archives and collections, but what stood out most was a sense of passion and enthusiasm for spotlighting these formerly hidden histories, as well as the emphasis on applying research to affect change in the industry and in communities. Andrew Burke referenced the work of Archive/Counter-Archive in preserving indigenous histories, as well as the ever-increasing number of vernacular archives making once-ephemeral material newly accessible online and through social media. Other innovations included the use of new technologies such as in the CONGO VR project, or the development of guidelines and toolkits to roll new initiatives out to the archiving community. I left the event with a sense of optimism that we are moving towards a more inclusive future for archival practice, though there are still enough issues to fill several more programmes like this one. And with IAMHIST’s biennial conference making the leap to the southern hemisphere for first time next year, it will be fascinating to see what future discussions and events might evolve from that.

Ellen Scally is a PhD candidate in the Department of Film & Screen Media at University College Cork and an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar. She is a former graduate of the MA in Film & Screen Media from UCC. Her PhD project concerns the history of amateur film and cine-culture in Ireland, and research interests include Irish cinema history, amateur film culture and practice and audio-visual 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.

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