The Desmet Collection
On May 25, 2011, UNESCO officially announced that the Desmet Collection had been selected as a cultural heritage for the Memory of the World Register. It was the first time that a film collection had earned this distinction.
The Register is a World Heritage list for 'documentary heritage', and includes books, archives, audiovisual recordings, and reports of exceptional historical significance.
scope and content
The Desmet Collection consists of more than 900 films, about and 2,000 posters, photographs, programs, leaflets, and brochures, as well as the archive of the business run by theatre owner and film distributor Jean Desmet. Its main focus is on the period 1907-1916, when Desmet worked as a travelling cinema operator and later as a cinema owner and distributor. But the archive also contains material from the years after 1916, (when Desmet was mainly active in the real estate industry), as well as documents about his private life.
preservation and digitization
In 1957, a year after Desmet’s death, the collection came into the possession of the former Dutch Film Museum. In 2011, the company archive and the publicity materials were digitized as part of the Metamorfoze project, which is a national digitization project for the conservation of paper-based heritage items.
The films, photographs, and posters have already been preserved and digitized, for example as part of the Beelden voor de Toekomst initiative. Many of the posters were restored and digitized from 1997-2000 as part of the large-scale Deltaplan voor cultuurbehoud, under the supervision of the Mondriaan Foundation.
The fact that collection has been included in the Memory of the World Register indicates its unique value. The collection is unrivalled in the world, due to its breadth and the fact that it contains the entire company archive. It provides unique insights into the film-screening and distribution practices of the 1910s. The film industry was undergoing major changes in that period, due to the emergence of permanent cinemas as places where films were shown, the introduction of film distribution, and the emergence of the long (feature) film.
Within a few years, film had grown from a relatively minor fairground attraction into the leading entertainment medium, with an audience of millions every year. On the basis of the sources in the collection, for example the cash ledgers, lease documents, purchase lists, invoices, and correspondence, we can gain a good understanding of the ins and outs of Desmet's film company.
For film historians as well, the collection is an almost inexhaustible source of research. Research into the collection has helped ensure that people’s image of the film world in the 1910s, especially before the First World War, has been thoroughly revised.
In 2000, film historian Ivo Blom received his PhD for research into the Desmet Collection, with the thesis ‘Pionierswerk: Jean Desmet en de vroege Nederlandse filmhandel en bioscoopexploitatie (1907-1916)’. In 2003, the English-language trade edition of this dissertation was published as ‘Jean Desmet and Early Dutch Film Trade’.