Professor Tim Wall & Dr Paul Long, recently presented a paper at a ‘On, Archives!’, a conference that took place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA from July 6-9.
This is Paul’s report.
On, Archives! was hosted by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (WCFTR) and also contained within it a dedicated symposium on ‘Broadcasting in the 1930s’ organized by Hugh Chignall (Bournemouth) and Jamie Medhust (Aberystwth).
En route to Madison we stopped over in Chicago. Now Chicago is undoubtedly a ‘cinematic’ city, so mythologised in American and wider cultures as to be already familiar to new visitors like me. We arrived on Independence Day which meant that the Stars and Stripes was ubiquitous and firework displays abounded.
Given the tendency to wax lyrical about such places in comparison to the familiarity of home I’ll reserve further remarks for another occasion. However, and acknowledging the trompe l’oeil effect of the cityscape and delights of wandering the streets in sweltering heat, what impressed were the various ways in which the cultural heritage of the city was celebrated.
Whether it was the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright or the heritage of blues music and others, this place had plenty of cultural confidence (although less evidence of the bluster which earned the label of ‘The Windy City’). What I liked was the unself-conscious aspect of celebrating all avenues of culture, ‘high’ and ‘low’, and the entrepreneurial spirit which made this place so interesting and interested in its own history.
On to Wisconsin and ‘On, Archives!’; WCFTR was an apposite place for this event as it is home to one of the oldest and most extensive collections of print, audio/visual, and graphic materials relating to film, theater, radio and television in the United States.
The conference organizer, Professor Michele Hilmes is International Visiting Fellow in the Birmingham School of Media and a scholar whose work on media history is truly inspirational . Michele and her husband were generous enough to host a ‘Cook-Out’ for us and other visitors at their lakeside house, a highly agreeable way to acclimatize.
The conference commenced with a keynote from Tino Balio who recounted the story behind the various archives procured by WCFTR. The collections focus mainly on US entertainment-based media, particularly archives of the American film industry between 1930 and 1960 (the business records of United Artists are here), popular theater of the 1940s and 1950s, and television from the 1950s through the 1970s. Holdings include over three hundred manuscript collections from playwrights, television and motion picture writers, producers, actors, designers, directors and production companies. In addition to the paper records, materials preserved include fifteen thousand motion pictures, television shows and videotapes, two million still photographs and promotional graphics, and several thousand sound recordings. For most of us in attendance, we could spend the rest of our scholarly lives here and happily never leave the reading desks.
Later in the first day, the keynote address for the symposium was given by Dr. Kate Lacey, University of Sussex. Her paper ”Paradoxes and Paradigms: Broadcasting and its Publics in the 1930s” drew upon her knowledge of the UK and German contexts in that decade, challenging us to think in more detail about the act of listening and reception of radio in this period.
Given the size and scope of the conference there were, inevitably and regrettably, many papers that one had to miss. Nonetheless, the overall quality of scholarship was high and made each panel rewarding.
One of the most stimulating panels concerned ‘Archives and the Internet’. This featured papers from Mark Hain, Indiana University (“Resurrecting the Vamp: Cinema’s Loss and New Media’s Finding of Theda Bara”) and Josh Jackson, University of Wisconsin-Madison (“YouTube and the User-Generated Online Archive”). The stand-out paper here, and perhaps of the conference, came from Ken Garner of Glasgow Caledonian University. His paper continued his ongoing concern with the life and work of John Peel and was entitled: ”Ripping the Pith from the Peel: Institutional versus internet cultures of archiving popular music radio – The case of BBC Radio 1’s John Peel Show”. This reported back on the activities of fans to unearth recordings of Peel’s show from over 4 decades of broadcasting and to digitize and share the fruits of these labours. Most intriguing were the results of his online survey of Peel aficionados and their perception of the BBC’s archiving activities.
The symposium proved to be a successful innovation and further papers of note included those in the ‘BBC Talks and Education’ panel, notably Todd Avery’s
”The Trumpets of Autocracies and the Still, Small Voices of Civilisation: Hilda Matheson, Emmanuel Levinas, and the Ethics of Broadcasting in a Time of Crisis”. While Levinas never emerged in this paper, the account of the remarkable Hilda Matheson’s ideas on radio and the 1930s moment was a useful extension of Avery’s exploration of ‘Radio Modernism’.
Elsewhere, Ben Harker (University of Salford, biographer of Ewan MacColl) spoke on “Communists on the BBC, 1935–39″. Undoubtedly a small number of individuals, communists in the BBC were responsible for some of the most interesting of productions in the 1930s which challenged the patrician and culturally conservative nature of the voice of UK radio. While other papers illuminated other stories that also challenged any view of the BBC as politically and culturally heterogeneous, its dominant character for so long was exactly that, this calling into question the nature of the ‘public’ it addressed (or constructed) in its remit. I look forward to reading the results of this research as it emerges.
Tim Wall gave two papers. The first took place under the aegis of the symposium and was entitled: “Radio Remotes and the Nightlife of the Big City”. Although I missed the presentation and what sounded like a stimulating panel, Tim’s paper concerned the way in which histories of radio and jazz tended to reproduce each other’s shortcomings. This was explored through a reflection on Tim’s passion – Duke Ellington – and accounts of his place in early ‘remote’ radio broadcasts, or transmissions from jazz and other music venues. He revealed how existing histories are deficient in mapping the practicalities of these early years, leading to various kinds of historical confusion.
This historical reflection was taken up in Tim’s second paper as part of the panel ‘Archives and Institutions’. Speaking on “Public Service broadcasting, archives, and cultural television” Tim outlined some of his thinking on the way in which the BBC have constructed histories of popular music in recent years, notably in the ‘Britannia’ series of programmes.. Given the enviable resources amalgamated in such works (and in the US in series such as Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’ et al), they often fall short as history, tending to offer rounded narratives in the service of the demands of televisual convention when audiences and materials suggest that something more adventurous and stimulating might be attained. The challenge of this paper however was to reflect on what role the academy might play in critiquing and aiding such histories. That we might actually take a role would be a start!
This panel also included Christopher Cwynar, University of Wisconsin-Madison speaking on “NFB.ca: The Digital Archive as National Place in the Virtual World” and Jennifer Porst, University of California-Los Angeles ”The U.S. v. Twentieth Century-Fox, et al.: How the Forced Disclosure of Documents in Legal Cases Provides an Invaluable Resource for Researchers”. Chris provided a very stimulating assessment of the Canadian Film Board’s online activity (and a nuanced reading of its sight) while Jennifer used legal records to get at the kind of interview questions one would ask of film executives if only one could go back in time.
My paper was part of the first panel of Friday, the final day, encompassed in the theme ‘Documenting the Documentary: Postwar Public Affairs Programming’ and chaired by the delightful Shawn VanCour, University of South Carolina. Matthew Ehrlich, University of Illinois, gave an interesting paper: ”Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest”. This exploration of dynamic radio production on issues of public concern was fully illustrated with extracts from US radio features from the 40s and early 50s which for us drew attention to how different the sound of US radio was compared to the staid BBC.
My own paper was entitled “Inscribing the work of Philip Donnellan into documentary and other histories”. This developed my longstanding concern with the work and archive of this important, but not obscure, documentarist. My aim of exploring the nature of Archiving was rather attenuated but it is important I think to record a comment I picked up from Mark Haynes and which brought home to me something of the value of doing archive work. He suggested that for most people, the Archive is not something that they are familiar with, even though of course, many people are involved in a kind of personal, informal archiving process (of their cultural collections, personal artefacts etc). For us academics, our access to and use of archives is a privilege, even if we are sometimes under the controlling eye of archivists and institutional regulations which appear at times as if it would be preferable to NOT use the archive and touch its treasures.
Such observations, as well as the particularity of media archives raise questions about how we understand the Archive. Perhaps it is down to the variety of sessions and my own choices, but what did not emerge as fully as I had hoped were more provocative reflections on this meta-area. Nonetheless, this event was broad enough and gathered together enough scholars with an interest in such questions as to allow other discussions and collaborations that prompted reflections outside of the formal spaces of panels and papers.
On the final day we had the option of being taken on a tour of the WCFTR archives that are housed in a fine old building on the university campus. On the tour then, it was a delight to sample some of these treasures and to see original sketches from costume designer Edith Head as well as a set of letters from the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. One of the ‘Hollywood Ten’, Trumbo was jailed for his defiance of the anti-communist Senate hearings in the 1950s and we were privileged to be shown some of his letters to his wife that were written from his prison cell. Faced with such documents, the value of the archive is tangible and one feels able to commune in some manner with the historical moment. The skill of those at this event was to make media history come alive out of such materials.