Yesterday evening the BFI Southbank hosted the Ernest Lindgren Memorial Lecture. Ernest Lindgren was the founding curator of what in 1935 was named the National Film Library and which is now known as the BFI National Archive. The lecture was an important annual event in the film archiving calendar until it was discontinued in the late 1990s, seemingly for good. Happily the BFI has decided to revive it in this its 75th anniversary year. It certainly will be worthwhile if the lecture continues to be as provocative and stimulating as that delivered by Paolo Cherchi Usai.
Cherchi Usai has been Senior Curator of the Motion Picture Department at George Eastman House, Director of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, co-founder and co-director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, and is now director of the Haghefilm Foundation in the Netherlands. His topic was 'The Film Curator of the Future', and its centrepiece was a manifesto, named after Lindgren, the stubborn realist upon whose sound preservation principles the BFI National Archive has been built.
Here is the manifesto:
THE LINDGREN MANIFESTO
The Film Curator of the Future
1. Restoration is not possible and it is not desirable, regardless of its object or purpose. Obedience to this principle is the most responsible approach to film preservation.
2. Preserve everything is a curse to posterity. Posterity won’t be grateful for sheer accumulation. Posterity wants us to make choices. It is therefore immoral to preserve everything; selecting is a virtue.
3. If film had been treated properly from the very beginning, there would be less of a need for film preservation today and citizens would have had access to a history of cinema of their choice.
4. The end of film is a good thing for cinema, both as an art and as an artifact. Stop whining.
5. If you work for a cultural institution, make knowledge with money. If you work for an industry, make money with knowledge. If you work for yourself, make both, in the order that’s right for you. Decide what you want, and then say it. But don’t lie.
6. A good curator will never claim to be a curator. Curatorship is not about the curator. It is about the others.
7. Turning silver grains into pixels is not right or wrong per se; the real problem with digital restoration is its false message that moving images have no history, its delusion of eternity.8. Digital is an endangered medium, and migration its terminal disease. Digital needs to be preserved before its demise.
9. We are constantly making images; we are constantly losing images, like any human body generating and destroying cells in the course of its biological life. We are not conscious of this, which is as good as it is inevitable.
10. Knowing that a cause is lost is not a good enough reason not to fight for it.
11. A film curator must look for necessary choices, with the ultimate goal of becoming unnecessary.
12. Governments want to save, not give, money. Offer them economical solutions; therefore, explain to them why the money they give to massive digitization is wasted. Give them better options. Treating with the utmost care what has survived. Better yet, doing nothing. Let moving images live and die on their own terms.
13. Honor your visual experience and reject the notion of “content”.Protect your freedom of sight. Exercise civil disobedience.
14. Be aware that the world is not interested in film preservation. Peoplecan and should be able to live without cinema.
There is a lot there that is contentious, and some of it seemingly contradictory. The myth of restoration is certainly worth challenging (we will never get those films to become once again what they were, and there is no end to restoration, as constantly announced new restorations of familiar titles should make clear). But Cherchi Usai is torn between analogue and digital, calling for realism and an end to sentimentality, while still harking back to the supposed pure experience of celluloid. And what does it mean to 'reject the notion of "content"' (point 13)? 'Content' is a lot of what moving images are about, unless one is wedded solely to the idea of film as art and film archives as being wholly dedicated to preserving that art. But film archives must be as versatile as the medium that they care for, and must consider first what those who use them require. As point 6 asserts, 'curatorship is not about the curator. It is about the others.'
But for the most part the manifesto is rich in good sense and rewarding ideas. Posterity will very probably want us to make choices, though just as equally it may curse us for having made them contrary to its own expectations. Selection should be a virtue. Above all, the manifesto is a call for honesty as well as good practice, and as such is not only strongly grounded in Lindgrenite principles but has ideas of value to curators and collections beyond the moving image.