• 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].
  • [Letters]
  • 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.
  • [Obituaries]
  • Grigor, Murray. ‘Margaret Tait’. n.d.
  • ‘Margaret Tait’. The Times, 28th May 1999.
  • [Articles]
  • 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

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 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 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.

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

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 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 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 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 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

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

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.