Aurand, Ute. [Obituary] ‘Margaret Tait’. Translated from the German. First appeared in epd Film, Frankfurt, June 1999.

Bell, Gavin. ‘A Reel Visionary’, The Scotsman, 27th September, 2000.

British Film Institute databases: SIFT; Film Index International.

Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA). Mold. Managing a Mold Invasion: Guildlines for Disaster Response, Philadephia, 1996.

Curtis, David. [Obituary] ‘Britain’s Oldest Experimentalist… Margaret Tait’, Vertigo, 1999.

Elsner, John & Cardinal, Roger. The Cultures of Collecting.Reaktion Books, London, 1994.

Gurr, Edward. Staining Animal Tissues. Practical and Theoretical, Leonard Hill Books Ltd., London, 1962.

Encyclopedia of Microscopic Stains, Leonard Hill Books Ltd., London, 1960.

Horrocks, Roger. Len Lye, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2001.

International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). Preservation and Restoration of Moving Images and Sound, FIAF, 1986.

Leggett, Mike. ‘Margaret Tait’, A Directory of British Film & Video Artists. Ed. David Curtis. The Arts Council of England. University of Luton Press. 1997.

Le Grice, Malcolm. ‘Independent British Cinema’, Studio International, May 1975.

Lillie, R.D. H. J. Conn’s Biological Stains, (8th Ed.) The Williams & Wilkins Company, Baltimore, 1969.

Moir, Jan. ‘First Person Highly Singular’, The Guardian, 31st March, 1993.

O’Toole, James M. ‘On The Idea of Permanence’, American Archivist, Vol. 52, 1989.

Pirie, Alex. Margaret Tait Film Maker 1918-1999. Indications Influences Outcomes, Published as a special one-off edition of Poem Film Film Poem. South London Poem Film Society. Vol. 6, April 2000.

Read, Paul & Meyer, Mark-Paul. (Eds.) Restoration of Motion Picture Film, Butterworth Heinemann, Oxford, 2000.

Redding, Judith M. & Brownworth, Victoria, A. Film Fatales Independent Women Directors, Seal Press, Seattle, 1997.

Reilly, James, M. IPI Storage Guide For Acetate Film, RIT, Rochester, 1993.

Ryan, Roderick T. A History of Motion Picture Color Technology, Focal Press, London, 1977.

Stevenson, Gerda. [Obituray] ‘The late Margaret Tait, film-maker – an appreciation’, The Orcadian, 20th May 1999.

Stevenson, Gerda. [Obituary] ‘Margaret Tait’. The Scotsman, 5th May 1999.

Sussex, Elizabeth. [Obituary] ‘Margaret Tait’. The Guardian, 13th May 1999.

‘Margaret Tait, Film-maker’. Financial Times, 9th September 1970.

[Unique Misc.]

Pirie, Alex. ‘Margaret Tait Film Maker’, 1979.

[Various Ancona Films promotional material for many titles].

‘Margaret Tait, Film Maker’. [Draft scripts for the Channel Four series, Eleventh Hour, 1983].


Pirie, Alex. ‘Margaret Tait’s Films’, 31st January 2000.

Tait, Margaret. Letters to David Curtis, 7th December 1981, 12th July 1983, 17th August 1998, 1st October 1998, 3rd February 1995, 14th May 1998.


Grigor, Murray. ‘Margaret Tait’. n.d.

‘Margaret Tait’. The Times, 28th May 1999.


Hollander, Peter. Unpublished autobiography. n.d.

Krikorian, Tamara. ‘On The Mountain and Land Makar: Landscape and Townscape in Margaret Taits Work’. January 1983.

Kwietniowski, Richard. ‘The Autonomous Film-Maker. Margaret Tait: Films & Poems 1951-76’. Edited version of Leggett, 1976.

Leggett, Mike. ‘The Autonomous Film-Maker. Margaret Tait: Films & Poems’, 1979.

MacDiarmid, Hugh. ‘Intimate Film Making in Scotland. The Work of Dr. Margaret Tait’. n.d.

Shure, Robert. ‘The Long Light Days of Margaret Tait’. n.d.

[Programme notes]

‘3rd International Festival of Film and Television in The Celtic Countries. Wexford Ireland. 28th March-2nd April, 1982′.

‘Film Maker on Tour Margaret Tait’. n.d.

‘Film Makers on Tour – Margaret Tait. 7th December 1977.

NFT ‘Where I Am Is Here’. n.d.

NFT ‘Art In The Cinema. The International Avant-Garde Film’ n.d.

Medienkunst Festival Osnabriick, 1988.

4. Conclusions

I’m not really interested in ‘recording for posterity.’ That’s an incidental, or accidental value or interest that any of my films might have (not what I’m making it for). I make my films for audiences who are there at the time – for a response at the time. 1)Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

On The Idea of Permanence

In my introduction, I stated that I believe it is the Archivist’s job to be able to offer an alternative understanding of the ‘ravages of time’. I also began this paper by wanting to highlight both the philosophical and ethical nature of the profession, concentrating on our idea of permanence which I believe to be at the heart of this ethic. At every stage, our conceptualisation of ‘permanence’ informs how we approach collecting, restoring, preserving and presenting moving images. Prior to collecting, we tend to classify. That is, we prioritise, in a hermeneutic sense, certain objects based on our location in history. Thus, what we choose to classify are “truly the mirror of our thoughts, its changes through time are the best guide to the history of human perception.” 2)Purcell & Gould, Illuminations: A Bestiary, 1986, 14. Quoted in Elsner & Cardinal, The Cultures of Collecting, 1994, 2. Collecting, as the material embodiment of classifying, presumes the possibility of a degree of permanence in that which is being collected. The truly ephemeral escapes us, the fragile demands our attention and excitement, the enduring provides us comfort. In all, the objects we collect and the way in which we collect them are extending the knowledge that we have inherited to contribute towards a persisting social order. In reality, that is where our idea of permanence tends to be fulfilled; not in the relatively fleeting existence of the object itself (nor the fleeting pleasure found in the object) but in the continuing social order to which its classification and collecting has contributed.

Archives tend to be distributed according to place: usually national, regional, local or individual. These terms themselves are based on classifying people into collectives such as British, Scottish or Orcadian, like Margaret Tait. As Gould noted, what we collect is a mirror of ourselves (or for the individual collector, her Self) and that may reflect an inherited inclination towards certain things or, if we choose to distinguish ourselves from the past, we might collect to assert our independence. The Scottish Film and Television Archive fulfills both these roles by collecting moving images which emphasise the collective cultural inheritance/heritage of the Scottish people and also images which are unique to Scotland, (i.e. their significance might be that they are not images of/by the English, Welsh or Irish).

Margaret Tait’s work has been classified by the Archive to be of the highest historical importance (grade one out of three). The reasons for this are obvious: the films are technically and aesthetically unique, the collection is extensive and quite complete, the biographical details of the filmmaker contribute to national, regional and local historical narratives. The films clearly identify the film maker as Scottish, not in a stereotypical way, but rather they add to the diversity of the Archive’s collection which mirrors the image of the diversity of the Scottish themselves. By preserving Tait’s films (which might outlive us but are not permanent), the Archive and its Archivists are engaged in preserving a social order (also called ‘our heritage’) which in one form or another is as old as our idea of permanence itself. I hope this goes some way to explaining my earlier comment about Archiving being a profession which attempts to extend the life of a culture, society, institution or individual by extending the life of the image or representation of these entities. It is not as foolish an enterprise as it might first appear as it shows an acceptance of the inevitable mortality of mankind but an understanding that social order can and must continue.

As Archivists, our idea of permanence should not be restricted to primarily the physical permanence of the object but more towards the collective social sense which we derive from the images we consume daily. The Archivist’s responsibility to society is that we are able to duly classify this overwhelming number of images and justify our decision to collect them for the continuing benefit of others. Ideally, it is a selfless profession that offers people opportunities for pleasure and learning today while ensuring that limited economic resources are invested in preserving over time information that is of benefit and use to society. In the end, it comes down to the apparently unavoidable conflict between preserving moving images and providing adequate public access to them. The answer, I suppose, is to be pragmatic and treat each instance of conflict separately.

So what of Margaret Tait and her five hand-painted films? I have already offered some of my own thoughts on why I think they are worth investing in and I’m sure the SFTVA could offer more of their own. Yet returning to the more practical aspects of restoration and preservation, I have indicated that the possible cost of full restoration separations or a digital restoration would be very high. How is the spending of public money, usually received in the form of grants, justified in this instance? Ironically, funding would also be needed to promote to the public how their money is being well spent. This is where the biographical details of Tait’s fascinating life are useful; to show that these unusual films are more than just dancing colours on a screen. We can show that they were the life’s work of a woman who gave up medicine because of the feeling “that it was necessary to do something more than just simply bringing people back to bodily health.” 3)Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983. That these films have a personal history, a personality even, is not only vital in justifying their preservation but also important to the new status they have attained as social documents. Although Tait may not have been interested in recording for posterity, we have seen that when closely observed, the films document the labours of an artist who, throughout her life, was an exception in Scotland. The technical and the biographical are no more intimately interwoven than when we see how she painted with ‘medical dyes’. To emphasise this holistic nature of her method would show that they are not only film-poems, sometimes funny, quite often serious, but innovations that stretch beyond the usual boundaries of film making.

References   [ + ]

1, 3. Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.
2. Purcell & Gould, Illuminations: A Bestiary, 1986, 14. Quoted in Elsner & Cardinal, The Cultures of Collecting, 1994, 2.

2. The Preservation of the Hand-Painted Film Elements

Having introduced both Margaret Tait and the hand-painted/drawn films held at the Scottish Film and Television Archive, I shall now move on to the main Section of this paper which shall discuss the film materials themselves and present conclusions on possible preservation paths the Archive might consider when working on the collection. The entire project has been my own undertaking and I am grateful to the Archive for allowing me to conduct my research on what is currently a collection ‘closed’ for preservation.

1.4 Numen of The Boughs/Colour Poems

During an interview for the 1983 Channel Four arts programme, Eleventh Hour, the subject of her hand-painted films was brought up, to which she replied:

Yes, I had done a bit, before, in sort of dance films, but in Colour Poems I was trying to do it rather differently. Instead of the usual kind of animation, I was doing the opposite, in a sense. I was trying to keep the picture as still as possible, and get the opposite effect, you know, of Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending A Staircase’, where you see several phases in one picture. I was trying to keep the picture still, over a number of frames, but just allowing for the natual shiver that there’s bound to be; and this was to illustrate a slightly shaky memory I had, of what of course in world terms was a very significant time in this century, the time of the Spanish Civil War.

It seems that having spent fifteen years painting Eightsome and John MacFadyen, Tait had developed both her technique and purpose behind labouring over each frame individually. Numen of The Boughs is an attempt at expressing something quite apart from the energy of movement and dance found in the earlier films. It was an experiment from which successful portions were incorporated into Colour Poems. The two-minute roll of film, painted without reference to a soundtrack, is almost entirely composed of black and white hand-drawn or scratched sequences. There is some colour in the original roll which has been applied over the scratches, but subsequent prints Tait had made were reproduced in black and white. The version which was incorporated into Colour Poems is black and white although colour was applied by hand to the negative over the animated sections.

Numen of The Boughs was never meant to be projected for the public although it was very successfully incorporated into Colour Poems, one of Tait’s most often screened films. As we have seen, Tait was concerned with expressing her feelings about the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) but claims that her memories of it in the early 1970s “were simply of newspaper reports and of some people who had gone away to it and had come back…I couldn’t quite take it all in at all, really.”

So between Sorley MacLean’s poem about not having gone to the Spanish Civil War, and something of Lorca – I got the title from this book, ‘El Numen de las Ramas’, which I translated as ‘Numen of The Boughs’. I don’t know if it is the correct translation. I had started a poem in words and I tried to complete it on the film; that was what I was doing. 1)Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

This poem is read aloud over the opening hand-drawn sequence of Colour Poems and because it describes quite clearly the feelings Tait had during the making of Numen and Colour Poems, I have reproduced it overleaf:

Well, yes

I do remember

the young men

going off to fight in Spain

but not Sorley McLean

not Sorely McLean in his pain

then them coming back changed

and yet not changed enough

for my notion then

of what war might be

frozen soldiers of the plains

stiff in trees

in photographs

the black showing through the thin snow

and the hard plain of Madrid

as shown to us in newsreels

stick in my vision

and click now

with McLean’s poem ‘to Evir’

and Lorca’s ‘Numen of The Boughs’

busy with studies then

and enjoying ourselves

How much did we notice?

I remember the look of young men

coming back

who’d been in Spain

and wondering about them

What took them there?

What brought them back?

What had they learned?

What sad knowledge was forever more

buried deep inside them?

In festival programmes, Colour Poems usually carries the subtitle, ‘nine related film poems’. Over twelve minutes, the film has nine titles: Numen of The Boughs, Old Boots, Speed Bonny Boat, Lapping Water, Incense, Aha, Brave New World, Things Found and Terra Firma. Much of the hand-drawn material is in the first section, although there are other short animated ‘refrains’ throughout the film. Clearly the notion of memory is important to the film as is observation “and the subsuming of one to the other.” 2)Programme notes by Tait for an unidentified German screening. Leggett has quoted Tait describing the film as “nine linked short films, about memories which affect chance observation. A poem started in words and continued on in images; part of another poem read as an addition to the picture; some images formed by direct on-film animation, others ‘found’ by the camera.” 3)Leggett, 1979. He has also noted that the film evokes distant causes with the “sturdy present” of contemporary Orkney. “Optimistic images of freshly painted steamers, and the bustle of re-constructive activity in full colour contrast distinctly with the grainy black and white greys of The Drift Back (1956).”

Colour Poems is a film that draws on familiar observations in rich colour, intercut with the harder almost monochrome hand-drawings in black ink. Indeed, unlike the earlier hand-painted films, the drawings do not dance or wriggle energetically but just as she intended, they ‘shiver’, seemingly constricted by the frame or perhaps the window of time. Tait has suggested that by cutting colourful observations of the present with these sketches of the past, the memories keep reverberating back, never quite disappearing. “Out of one’s own memory and thought one then finds (or arranges) the external scenes which can be filmed and made into something else again.” 4)Pirie, letter, 2000.

By the year Colour Poems was fininshed, Tait had made twenty-two short 16mm films. Of those, the 1982 festival screenings list I referred to earlier shows that nine films, including Colour Poems, had shown at festivals, mainly the Edinburgh International Film Festival and one or two other experimental or avant-garde film festivals. From her letters to David Curtis and draft scripts of the Eleventh Hour programme, there is also evidence to suggest that she showed her films to local audiences. Avant-garde film makers’ interest in her work increased after Malcolm Le Grice, reviewing the Festival of Independent British Cinema in Bristol, 1975, claimed that:

The main surprise and delight came through seeing the work of Margaret Tait for the first time… Working in a direction which received no echo of support in the films of her generation, she has developed her ideas in relative isolation…she must be considered as the only genuinely independent experimental mind in film to precede the current movement… Her work is sophisticated…she is no Primitive…deserves a full critical review… 5)Pirie, letter, 2000. Original article written for Studio International, May-June, 1975.

This attention was overdue, yet Tait was reluctant to accept the London Film Co-op’s adoption of her as an ‘experimentalist’. Pirie has written that “she was too well-informed about developments in film practice over the decades, but understood the need of others to accept the comfort of such designations.” 6)Letter, 2000. In fact, Tait herself has also said that:

I never describe my work as ‘avant-garde’. I don’t see that it’s a term one can use of oneself anyway. How can anyone say such a thing, of themselves? Besides that, there’s something too limiting about the idea of Avant-Garde – as if at all costs you must be making innovations. Cinema itself is an innovation of this century, and within the mainstream of it the most astonishing things have been achieved. It bowls me over, it really does. 7)Draft script for Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

As we have seen, despite her life-long practice in short, 16mm filmmaking, Tait was always interested in making feature films. Although a discerning critic of commercial cinema, she very much wanted to express her own ideas and aesthetic in this form, eventually doing so in Blue Black Permanent, a film which was first conceived in the 1940s and only came to fruition after the establishment of Channel Four in the 1980s.

References   [ + ]

1. Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.
2. Programme notes by Tait for an unidentified German screening.
3. Leggett, 1979.
4. Pirie, letter, 2000.
5. Pirie, letter, 2000. Original article written for Studio International, May-June, 1975.
6. Letter, 2000.
7. Draft script for Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

1.2 Calypso

While I intend to continue discussing the life and work of Margaret Tait, from hereon in I shall do so with reference to the hand-painted and hand-drawn films she produced throughout her career as a filmmaker. 1)For a more general discussion of her work until the late 1970s, see Leggett, 1979. These films are:

Calypso (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 4:29, 1955)

John MacFadyen (The Stripes in The Tartan) (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 3:30, 1970)

Painted Eightsome (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 6:16, 1970)

Numen of the Boughs (35mm/16mm, colour, silent, 2:07, 1974)

Colour Poems (16mm, colour, sound, 11:20, 1974 – includes Numen)

Garden Pieces (16mm, colour, sound, 11:30, 1998)

Calypso was Tait’s first hand-painted film and although it often carries the date of 1955, it was painted in Italy three years earlier. Hollander recalls:

Margaret somehow made contact with the technical guy at the office of the British Information Service in Rome. They were making an Italian version of a film called, I think, Jamaica in which there is a scene of a cricket match accompanied by a melange of calypso music. It was still in the days of 35mm and a print of the sound track was considered not quite good enough for the mix. This BIS man gave the print to Margaret who used it to paint her film on.” 2)Email correspondence with Hollander, June 2002.

It is no coincidence that Tait and Hollander would make a film called Calypso at this time. In 1950, the West Indies cricket team triumphed at Lords. The win was also a symbolic victory over their colonisers and immediately celebrated by Calypso legend, Lord Beginner who led an impromtu song, ‘Cricket, Lovely Cricket’ through the West-end of London. It became the anthem of 1950 and found its way to Tait in Italy who must have found its celebratory tune irresistible.

Calypso was hand painted onto clear 35mm film stock with an optical soundtrack running down the side. Greater technical detail will be given in Section Two but here I want to briefly identify the connection between Tait and the New Zealand artist, Len Lye.

Horrocks has written that Lye had experimented with scratching on the film surface in the 1920s and took it up in earnest several years later while in London. By 1934, unaware of any precedents, he was wrestling with the practical problem of finding suitable paints which would sufficiently adhere to the film stock. Finally settling on a set of ‘lacquer paints’, he used a variety of domestic tools with which to improvise his new art.

Seeing Lye’s initial efforts, John Grierson of the GPO Film Unit, recognised the possibilities of making colourful films within an industry still largely dominated by black and white and comissioned Lye to produce “an abstract colour film.” 3)Horrocks, 2001, 136. For this he was paid £30 which was not enough to hire a composer. So he and a friend, Jack Ellitt, began listening to hundreds of records before deciding on ‘La Belle Creole’, a lively dance piece (at the time described as a ‘rumba’) by Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra. Ellitt drew up an analysis of the music and Lye made various cue marks along side the soundtrack where he painted. A Colour Box was completed over two months and was a striking contrast to many of the avant-garde films of the time.4

Its reception was mixed at first but by late 1935 cinemas were paying to show it because of the public interest it had created. Lye went on to make several other hand-painted and stenciled films influencing another Scottish painter-film maker, Norman McLaren who, when seeing A Colour Box for the first time, “was electrified and ecstatic.”

I wanted to see it over and over again…. Here was the pioneer of the hand-painted film. Apart from the sheer exhilaration of the film, what intrigued me was that it was a kinetic abstraction of the spirit of the music, and that it was painted directly onto the film. On both these counts it was for me a dream come true. I had dabbled with drawing and painting on film (because I couldn’t afford a camera) and had turned out a small amount of footage but I had never succeeded in making a film. Len Lye had shown the way, and shown it in a masterly and brilliant fashion. 4)Quoted in Horrocks, 2001, 145.

Much has been written about both of these film makers and any detailed history of hand-painted film could go on at length about each individual’s output and working styles. Here, I want to emphasise the similarities between Lye and Tait’s first hand-painted films and that she was certainly aware of his work by the time she painted Calypso.

I found [Lye’s films] highly entertaining and imaginative in themselves, as well as stimulating, suggesting further development. Something about the editing to a musical beat or using a musical length to determine an in-film length was in accord with some thoughts of my own at the time… I had always enjoyed the Len Lye films which used to appear in the cinemas in the ’30s… The use of sheer colour, screen-wide, coloured my idea of film (and perhaps colour) from then on. 5)Leggett, 1979.

The basic similarities between Calypso and A Colour Box are obvious: bold, vibrant colours, painted confidently with quick strokes and set to lively dance music. The movement of colour shows an attempt to synchronise with the music yet not be governed by it. Frame lines are painted in quick, single strokes and the jitter of the animation is used to an advantage, generating an energetic and playful effect. In practical terms, both Lye and Tait were drawn to painting on film because it was cheap, not requiring a camera nor very much film stock. In this sense, both were able to experiment without too much concern for budgeting the film and it has been suggested that she saw it more as a kind of ‘sketchbook’, using it to test new ideas while in intimate contact with the film material. 6)Leggett suggests this having had conversations with Tait in the 1970s. However, she would later deny this saying, “the hand-painted dance films were made as films not as sketches.” (Letter to Curtis, 1995).

Tait did not paint on film again until 1970. During that time, she would leave Italy having had a “very good time” and return to Edinburgh in 1954 where she re-established Ancona Films in a small office at 91 Rose Street. By this time, she had made five films, the three with Hollander mentioned above and Three Portrait Sketches (1951) and Portrait of Ga (1952), a touching portrait of her mother filmed while she was back in Orkney on vacation. The next twenty years were productive, punctuated with locum work until she received a tiny private income in 1960 and could finally finish with medicine altogether. 7)Pirie, letter, 2000. Although she had a base in Edinburgh, she went between the city, Sutherland and Orkney until the early 1970s when it became clear that she would lose her Rose Street office to redevelopment. Her time in Edinburgh is an example of her intention to remain independent just as the smaller Italian film companies had done so. Both used 16mm to their advantage as the cheaper production costs meant greater independence from the industry. In 1995, she wrote a lengthy letter about her choice of working in 16mm. She argued that 16mm film was “the answer” to her desire to work independently (“independent of what?” she once noted, reflecting on the state of the Scottish film industry), partly influenced by the efforts of the American ‘underground’ films and the pre-war avant-garde from Europe. 16mm afforded her professional quality on “laughable budgets”. She defended the format by arguing that much of television was shot on 16mm and was thus well supported by the industry. Some services were even available for 16mm before 35mm, in particular magnetic sound which she took advantage of frequently.

Another thing about 16mm was that you could get film stock in 16 that you couldn’t get in 35. 1) Colour reversal; Kodachrome gave beautiful colour. I used it for Portrait of Ga, Orquil Burn, Happy Bees and The Leaden and The Echo. 2) And there was black and white reversal too, which gave lovely rich blacks and good gradation. That was used for The Drift Back… 3) Ilford at the time sold b/w neg-pos stocks which I used a lot. And I think there was a greater variety there in 16 than in 35. I liked to use both HPS, a very fast and quite grainy one and PanF, quite the opposite, fine grain and slow. The Big Sheep is done entirely in HP5 & PanF, Where I Am Is Here, largely so but using also an intermediate speed. Hugh MacDiarmid is on Kodak b/w neg/pos. 8)Letter to David Curtis, 3rd February, 1995.

References   [ + ]

1. For a more general discussion of her work until the late 1970s, see Leggett, 1979.
2. Email correspondence with Hollander, June 2002.
3. Horrocks, 2001, 136.
4. Quoted in Horrocks, 2001, 145.
5. Leggett, 1979.
6. Leggett suggests this having had conversations with Tait in the 1970s. However, she would later deny this saying, “the hand-painted dance films were made as films not as sketches.” (Letter to Curtis, 1995).
7. Pirie, letter, 2000.
8. Letter to David Curtis, 3rd February, 1995.

1. ‘On The Idea of Permanence’

To say that archival records are permanent seems to fix their nature beyond doubt and to establish beyond challenge the full extent of the archivist’s responsibility to them. 1)O’Toole, 1989, 12.

Two years ago, while writing a paper on the preservation of amateur and small gauge film, I came across a reference to an article in the American Archivist by James M. O’Toole. 2)O’Toole, 1989 The article, ‘On The Idea of Permanence’, highlighted for me what is so thoroughly compelling about the profession of film archiving: It is a profession which reacts to the mortality of mankind, not as the physician would by searching for a cure, but by endeavouring to preserve the objects and information man once created in his own image. That is, I see in the archiving profession an attempt to extend the life of a culture, society, institution or individual not by directly fortifying them as would a physician but by permanently extending the life of the image or the representation of a culture, society, institution or individual through the objects and information left by the passage of time.

As O’Toole has shown, the archiving profession (and not least the film archiving profession), uses language today which embodies the religious world-view of our ancient predecessors and what we have today is an idea of permanence which can be traced back to the advent of literacy. O’Toole is an Historian and his article shows how archivists’ ideas of permanence have undergone change since the foundation of the profession. He argues that within the ‘archival lexicon’ the word permanent has been used without much reflection. At first, this struck me as odd. I had spent five years at University from 1993-98 studying and later teaching, Buddhism, a religious and philosophical tradition based entirely around the idea of impermanence. 3)In the simplest of terms, Buddhist philosophy is usually summarised as ‘The Four Noble Truths’ : The Existence of Impermanence (Dukkha); The Arising of Suffering Due to Desire (Samudaya); The Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha); The Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga). By contrast, my new profession commits substantial amounts of time and money to ensure, as far as possible, that the product of mankind is ‘permanent’.

O’Toole’s article focuses on written records, tracing the shift from oral to written traditions and consequently the investment in an idea of the permanence of a culture’s language and writing. Initially, it was the ‘permanence of information’ which the earliest archives sought to achieve by publishing and diffusing their materials, distinguishing between the permanence of the document itself and the information which it carried. Historical collections were initially valued for the information they held which testified to the “’pastness of the past’ and thereby certified ‘the reality of progress.’ Only later did these repositories come to value their collections as ‘things’ worthy in their own right and, later still, as sources for specialised study by professional scholars.” 4)O’Toole, 1989, 16. This friction between the information and the artifact is no less an issue when preserving a motion-picture film, essentially a procedure of copying.

Ironically, technical developments over the years have ensured greater longevity of the carrier and its information yet also offered greater insight into the ultimate inherent instability of physical objects. Put simply, all things eventually decay and it is with this in mind that the film archivist must approach the task of preservation. Deterioration might symbolise failure to some both inside and outside the profession, but it is the archivist’s job to be able to offer an alternative understanding of the ‘ravages of time’. I hope by the end of this paper, I have begun to do so.

‘Preservation’ is often confused with conservation and restoration. O’Toole argues that the emergence of this confusion occurred during the 1940s when ‘permanence’ increasingly became a technical term due to the shift in focus of archivist’s activities towards the care and treatment of their physical collections. In film archiving, the terms remain slightly confused depending on who is being addressed and to add to this confusion we might include the often used phrase, ‘passive preservation’. This basically refers to the preparation of the film for correct storage as distinct from ‘preservation’ which might indicate both conservation and/or restoration.

In the 1970s, a rapid increase in the different types of media being produced and collected and the greater technical ability to increase the longevity of objects meant that the sheer quantity of material archivists were responsible for had become overwhelming. Their limitless commitment to preservation became more selective and the meaning of ‘permanence’ moved in line with a general interpretive shift: from history being regarded as a linear record of events to history as a dynamic presentation of human perception. 5)O’Toole, 1989, 22. An archive’s collection, once prized as immutable evidence of the past, gradually took on a different value. Objects that were previously prescribed an ‘intrinsic value’ were reconsidered and new standards were developed to judge this. This pragmatic re-evaluation continues. Today, in Britain for example, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric of “education, education and education” can be found reflected in the British Film Institute’s 2000/2001 Annual Review which places an overwhelming emphasis on education through access. 6)“Education remains our first priority. In agreement with the purposes of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport as set out by the Film Council by whom we are funded, the bfi seeks to promote the knowledge and understanding of film and the moving image throughout Britain’s schools and colleges.” Joan Bakewell CBE, bfi Chair. These are the first two sentences of the Review.

This re-evaluation of archive collections led to the tendency to talk more of ‘passive preservation’ through the maintenance of a proper storage environment and less of routine conservation and restoration as a matter of procedure. Collections were increasingly seen as having ‘enduring value’ rather than being permanent records with ‘intrinsic value’. Today the absolute idea of permanence has finally given way to a more relative value defined by an “information-rich” climate which is “inclined to accord any particular datum or document a lesser value than would an information-poor society” 7)O’Toole, 1989, 24.

This scant history of the idea of permanence has enabled me to introduce a number of considerations which will again be addressed in the closing section of this paper. There, I attempt to discuss the ethical implications of preserving five hand-painted films by the late Scottish filmmaker, Margaret Tait, held at the Scottish Film and Television Archive (SFTVA). The ideas of permanence, information vs. object-as-artifact, preservation, conservation and restoration are all relevant to the films under discussion and hopefully this paper demonstrates that a seemingly insignificant number of short films by a relatively unknown filmmaker can provoke serious ethical considerations that have implications throughout the archiving profession. Indeed, my guess is that debate over this ethic will only intensify over the next decade or so with the advance of digital technologies.

Finally, I should emphasise that any recommendations I make in this paper are done so with an awareness of the investment of public money and archival resources that such preservation necessitates. I believe that a film archivist should be fully aware of the implications of this relationship and their responsibility to the greater public good. Naturally, professional ethics should have a firm philosophical basis by which the profession can justify and defend it’s methods and practice, and it is in recognition of this that I felt I should begin by introducing the idea of permanence. It is, in a sense, my philosophical starting point.

References   [ + ]

1. O’Toole, 1989, 12.
2. O’Toole, 1989
3. In the simplest of terms, Buddhist philosophy is usually summarised as ‘The Four Noble Truths’ : The Existence of Impermanence (Dukkha); The Arising of Suffering Due to Desire (Samudaya); The Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha); The Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga).
4. O’Toole, 1989, 16.
5. O’Toole, 1989, 22.
6. “Education remains our first priority. In agreement with the purposes of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport as set out by the Film Council by whom we are funded, the bfi seeks to promote the knowledge and understanding of film and the moving image throughout Britain’s schools and colleges.” Joan Bakewell CBE, bfi Chair. These are the first two sentences of the Review.
7. O’Toole, 1989, 24.