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Conservation vs. Preservation: How MoMA is Safeguarding Film Heritage

Conservation? Preservation? What’s the difference? Here’s how the Museum of Modern Art is making film — and film heritage work — more accessible.
Moma Film Conservation Preservation
By  · Published on August 25th, 2020

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video that explores the Museum of Modern Art’s latest conservation and preservation efforts.

What is the difference between conservation and preservation? If you care about safeguarding film, it can be helpful to know the difference.

Conservation and preservation are two different approaches that focus on the physical state of a film element. While conservation can involve repairs or chemical treatments, preservation is decidedly more hands-off. Preservation involves peripheral actions that minimize deterioration and prevent new damage to the film object — actions like environmental controls, deterring pests, and creating access copies to minimize handling of the original elements.

Put simply: conservation counters existing damage while preservation attempts to prevent future damage. Together, the ultimate goal is to increase access to film heritage.

One institution working to demystify its conservation and preservation practices is the Museum of Modern Art. In the second installment of their Film Vault Summer Camp video series on YouTube, MoMA staff walk us through three films from their collection: Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1914/2014), Katharine Hepburn as Joan Of Arc in Technicolor Screen Test (1934), and Andy Warhol’s Kiss (1963–64).

As explained in the video, each film’s hands-on conservation needs are different and bespoke. For instance, in the process of scanning the nitrate element of Lime Kiln Club Field Day, the conservators decided to perform some digital clean-up. Meanwhile, Kiss was essentially left alone, warts and all, in keeping with Warhol’s artistic tendency to leave things “as is.”

The video is a good visual reminder that each film has different needs that require the expertise of trained professionals with both a technical and historical background in moving image film.

Watch “How does MoMA preserve films?” here:

Who made this?

During the month of August, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art is streaming the most-requested treasures from the gallery’s film archive and teaching viewers about cinema history. Virtual Views: Film Vault Summer Camp is being held en lieu of on-site appointments, which have been canceled due to COVID-19. In addition to a glimpse into their vaults, MoMA is streaming live Q&As with curators and historians. You can check out the playlist of Film Vault Summer Camp on MoMA’s YouTube page here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).