Collecting Cultural Chronicles

Spring 2018
Amy Dixon

Westwood, beyond its vegan eateries and raucous nights at Rocco’s, hosts an array of archives that capture different facets of global and local history.

After passing the sleek profusion of commercial coffee shops, one can see the layers of time slowly peel away to reveal the neighborhood’s rich cultural interior. Much of Westwood’s history is embedded in its architecture and more tangibly accessible through its vast archives of film, art and literature. The archives, all located near UCLA, provide a broader context for appreciating history both within Westwood and beyond it.

Film and Television

Amy Dixon
/ daily bruin

The UCLA Film & Television Archive boasts the second largest moving image collection in the U.S., rivaled only by the Library of Congress.

Located in Powell Library, the annals of the world’s largest university-based media archive has collected works of film dating back to the 1890s, said Jan-Christopher Horak, the director of the archive. Though approximately 50 percent of films produced in the U.S. before 1950 have disappeared due to lack of proper care, the archive is home to over 350,000 motion pictures, 160,000 television programs, and 27 million feet of newsreel footage.

“The archive allows us to see the way people moved and how they looked at each other, how they responded to the camera,” Horak said. “The content stored in the archive is an extraordinary view into that time that we can only get through accessing moving images.”

The archive team takes on the task of housing the historical remnants and restoring them to their former glory, as many suffer from deteriorating defects due to their antiquated manufacturing processes, Horak said. Prior to 1950, the majority of films were produced with flammable nitrate cellulose film stock. Horak said the instability of the chemical made film more susceptible to deterioration, and eventually the film turned to dust.

Though the introduction of chemical acetate film stock after 1950 reduced film deterioration, the new method provoked “vinegar syndrome,” which caused the films’ vibrant color to fade irreversibly. The restoration process, Horak said, is harrowing and requires painstaking efforts to repair splices, rerecord soundtracks and tint films that have long lost their hues.

“Years ago, film students would watch old movies every second, ravenously consuming genres like French new wave in an effort to learn from predecessors,” Horak said. “The restoration process is vital to bringing these older films to a new generation of students.”

Amy Dixon
/ daily bruin

The collection chronicles the landmark events that define UCLA's history of social progress. Notably, the archive keeps works by the L.A. Rebellion, a group of African-American students who entered the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in the 1960s. They wanted to revolutionize black cinema and create an alternative to the traditionally whitewashed Hollywood scene. Drawing inspiration from movements including Italian Neorealism and emerging African cinema, the L.A. Rebellion produced burgeoning directors like Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, whose works are heavily featured in the archive.

The Billy Wilder Theater, nestled in the Hammer Museum on the corner of Wilshire and Westwood boulevards, plays a vital role in the film archive’s mission of bringing otherwise obscure titles to the public eye, especially to new students. Because the theater is one of the few facilities nationwide capable of projecting nitrate cellulose films and accommodating obsolete screen technologies, the theater is the ideal location to showcase films at programs like the annual UCLA Festival of Preservation. Horak said the theater is home to much of the archive’s programming and acts as a window to provide ongoing public education in the art of cinema.

The Billy Wilder Theater contributes to the archive’s interaction with a larger audience, making films stored in the depths of the annals more accessible for the public, Horak said. The archive, he added, aids in preserving the history of film and allows viewers to relive the past by engaging with the narratives shown on-screen.

“In a culture where we have the television on 24/7, people are exposed to moving images virtually every moment of the day, and yet many don’t know how to read these images analytically,” Horak said. “I think the archive is part of becoming a literate citizen because it allows people to understand how moving images are communicated.”

Art

The Hammer Museum possesses a digital 2,431-piece archive spanning over four collections that can be viewed from the relative comfort of a classic triple dorm.

Created following a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2013, the Hammer’s digital archive allows anyone to scroll through the collection. The pieces span various mediums, sizes and eras, depending on which archive is perused. Philip Leers, the Hammer’s project manager for digital initiatives, said the museum values an emphasis on context, so the pieces can be viewed through a historical and critical framework, rather than simply standing alone as a visual.

“We want people to understand why this work is important, and hopefully extend the life of these materials into the future,” Leers said.

Currently, the archive features the 2014 exhibition “Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology.” The display, featuring late 20th century works, such as 300 pounds of cellophane-wrapped candy in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “‘Untitled,’ (USA Today),” provides a glimpse into the artists’ sociopolitical environments, Leers said. The exhibition is also a guiding point into other collections featured in the archive, priming the viewer for the other complex ideas expressed within the archive.

Divided by theme, the different collections feature works that document the social revolutions that took hold of each era, such as the civil rights and Black Power movements in the late 1960s through 1980s that influenced artists in Los Angeles. Such exhibits allow students, especially those not native to Los Angeles, to better understand what comprises the city’s historical fabric.

Pauline Ordonez
/ daily bruin

The archive includes high-resolution images of artwork and other supplemental resources used to enhance understanding of the artist and their works, including detailed summaries of each artistic movement. Another click away, and the viewer has access to a variety of scholarly essays that delve into implications that may not be immediately obvious to the eye, Leers said.

The collection also grants access to a wealth of information that simply cannot fit the constraints of a cramped museum label, Leers said. The additional information in the archive allows students to understand the work in the context of its time period, rather than just existing as an ornament in a museum room. Additionally, with its convenient zoom feature, the digital archive gives leeway for closer scrutiny without jeopardizing the safety of the artworks, Leers said.

“Access to artwork is vital. Museums exist because art and culture are necessary parts of our lives, in that they elevate truth, justice and all these high-minded ideas,” Leers said. “It’s incumbent on being able to share that with as large of an audience as possible, and the archive facilitates that process.”

Literature

If a curious student wants a break from the hot California weather, The UCLA Library Special Collections contain rare texts that include the first printed mention of Leonardo da Vinci.

Under the UCLA Library system, the Library Special Collections hosts an extended archive in the Charles E. Young Research Library which includes rare books, manuscripts, photographs and other primary sources. While it had previously been subdivided into multiple archives, the collection was combined into one massive conglomerate in 2010. Still, much of the archive is sourced from Los Angeles communities, speaking to the expansive history of the LA area that new students have yet to unravel.

“The archive serves as a node in a global web of cultural heritage institutions that each serve to document segments of the human experience,” said Heather Briston, Head of Curators and Collections.

Briston said that while the archive contains impressive primary sources regarding subjects as motley as the Italian Renaissance and Antarctic exploration, the library puts a distinct emphasis on material about UCLA, Los Angeles and Southern California. The history of UCLA, which is one of the current collecting areas, gathers pieces as diverse as university records, oral histories of UCLA faculty and research papers from UCLA professionals. The archive extensively covers California as well, taking care to document underrepresented groups from early communities.

Amy Dixon
/ daily bruin

Additionally, the LSC collects more than what a visitor may imagine when picturing traditional historical documents, like those inscribed on aged parchment with a feather pen, or thick, dusty tomes that require a Latin translation to be understood. Briston said the archive also stores digital documents borne of the technological age, which hold their origins not in print but on screen.

The “born digital” materials are kept in their original form for preservation and access. Some materials begin in analog form, and are consequently digitized and added to the archive for better accessibility. In the collection of American writer Susan Sontag, the archive stores the contents of her computer’s hard drive, including her emails and original documents, which researchers can access in the reading room.

The UCLA Library Special Collections holds many different areas of interest, with rare pieces to supplement each one. These smaller, more topically-driven collections include archives such as the Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana, a special resource focusing on Leonardo da Vinci. The heavy metal archive contains expected materials like biographies on rock legends like Black Sabbath and Anthrax, but also covers topics of interest to a more select population, such as research on metal’s influence among Muslim fans and a heavy metal cookbook entitled “Hellbent for Cooking.” Even within collections restricted to a certain subject, students will still be able to find their niche.

“The collection is especially important for UCLA students because they are doing research that has never been done before,” said Briston. “Without access to the archive and the primary sources it offers, this innovative research wouldn’t have the ability to exist.”