Report on the Nitrate Vault Control Week 2017
Every year, the EYE Filmmuseum inspects one of its three nitrate vaults in its entirety, in compliance with the requirements of the nitrate permit: all the cans are opened to check the reels for damage and decomposition and action is taken accordingly. If necessary films are ‘cleaned’ and re-canned and additionally cans are also moved or reorganised on shelves if necessary and sometimes other tasks are also performed, this year for example we could make a giant leap in terms of barcoding.
Last year there wasn’t any control week, because of the move to the new collection centre. Therefore, this year it was an extra exciting opportunity for me: as my whole internship revolves around nitrate film, this allowed me a break from the identification work I was doing in the Collection Centre, while at the same time I could get a different perspective or gain new skills on working with that very same material, so I felt particularly obliged to participate for the full week and see the process for as much as a I could!
This year, the vaults in Heemskerk were up for inspection. They consist of two bunkers, that were used by the Germans in World War II as a means to safely keep artworks (belonging to the Rijksmuseum) in case of bombings, for example De Nachtwacht by Rembrandt is said to have temporarily been stored here. The Filmmuseum took over these so called ‘Kunstbunkers’ (‘art bunkers’) in the early 1990s, one for storing nitrate prints and the other one for storing safety prints. As all the safety films were moved to the depots in the new Collection Centre last year, the second bunker (which has a higher/narrower door, through which oversize paintings including the frame could be moved in entirely) is now entirely empty, but in the future might be the new residence of all the nitrate films which are now in other vaults.
The tasks performed in the vaults varied from day to day, but the first three days mainly entailed the laborious side of the control: bringing down stacks of cans from the shelf, opening each can and lifting the reels out in order to check both sides, as well as the insides of the can. What we mainly looked for was any sign of decomposition of the reels or reaction of the film with the can. This could be either a powdery residue (to lesser or greater extent) seen on the reel or in the lid and bottom of the can, the appearance of ‘honey’ or ‘bubbles’ on the top of the reel, ‘hockey-pucking’ (the reels getting hard and stuck together), spoking (the film shaping into anything under 6 corners was bad), signs of rust in a metal can and signs of white ‘crystallisation’ in blue plastic cans. We also paid attention to the state of the cans (whether they still properly closed and weren’t too damaged), and looked to find things in the cans that did not belong there, which meant anything other than film: notes, papers, punched tape, paperclips, etc. This all happens under the supervision of our firefighter Chris who is responsible for our safety; he has been our regular fire officer every time in the past years, so he is part of our nitrate team!
In the part of the vault where me and my ‘nitrate buddy’ worked were mostly the larger sized cans, which means they are heavy and the reels a bit more difficult to lift out of the can, because of their larger size, especially if you don’t have big hands or a firm grip. Not only did we check the reels, but the cans in this section also had to be moved to another shelf/wall in the same section. We moved from up to down and from left to right and every column had around 5 or 6 stacks of cans, therefore involving a lot of lifting, climbing and bending, and additionally making sure the cans were in the same order as how we got them off the shelves. Though, as we work in teams of two, you try to do as little lifting and carrying as possible and keep the most restraining movement to a minimum, the first two nights I definitely could feel the ‘work out’ and I don’t think I ever felt as many muscles in my hands from lifting all those reels as in this week.
After a few days, I was promoted to ‘nitrate expert’ (which, if you remember my last ‘nitrate beginner’-blog, must be the fastest promotion I ever made!), a role which for the rest of the week mostly attributed to curators and other EYE Filmmuseum veterans. This meant that you would sit at a table waiting for the ‘runners’ checking the cans to bring you the ‘problem cans’. You then check the can for the ‘problem’, make a quick inspection report, writing down the issue and its severity, the vault number, title and amount of reels. In case there is powder or crystallization or ‘honey’, you would vacuum the top and bottom of the reels (and the cans) with a special vacuum cleaner for nitrate, getting rid of the worst dirt/damage. If a film or can is in such a bad condition that for example the film has ‘eaten through the can’, we would re-can the film. Other than that, the films are not necessarily ‘cleaned’ or ‘treated’ in any other way. What will happen is that the reports we made will be saved and in a few months, it will become someone’s special project to order all these ‘problem’ cans from the vaults, inspect their condition more thoroughly (for example by cutting out the ‘contaminated’ part of the film, e.g. if only the intertitles are decaying you can dispose of these and save the rest) and to confer with the curators whether the print can be disposed of or should get an emergency preservation.
Examples of the appearance of ‘honey’ or ‘bubbles’, ‘spoking’ and ‘powder’
Generally speaking, however – though the pictures may suggest otherwise - most films were in good condition and overall the ‘problem cans’ we found were not in the worst condition yet. Some were incredibly powdery and clearly decomposing, but they were not in the most disgusting of conditions I have witnessed during my internship so far (which must have been the box of soaking wet films I wrote about in my previous blog post). In that sense, it goes to show that these kind of bulk inspections do really work and the collection managers do witness a change: that the damage is less or less severe than before. Nonetheless, it provided for me (as an intern working with nitrate film) a very interesting overview of the possible types of decay in different stages, the ‘honey’ type of decay I hadn’t witnessed before, and the heavy powdering in which the film is starting to eat through the can was also a fascinating sight. Lastly, something I enjoyed about the process that by letting all these cans/reels go through your hands you also, in a very physical and material way, get a sense of (a portion) of the films that are in the EYE Collection. You recognise titles of films you have seen, or notice films being in the collection multiple times, hence making it to certain extent much more tangible, rather than seeing the collection as information in a database.
After the first four days of inspection, most of the nitrate control had been finished already and so for the last day our teams moved on to another task: barcoding. We put stickers with barcodes on all the cans in the vault and scanned them. Later on a barcode will be attached to the shelf, so that a film can be ‘checked in’ and ‘out’ of a location on the shelf and containers can be traceable. Again a very laborious task, but physically less demanding as opening all the cans and putting them back.
Finally, not to be left unmentioned are the ‘excursion-like’ conditions under which we worked, outdoors in the natural reservation, which was definitely a huge difference from the way I work inside the dark nitrate room in the Collection Centre.
Though all in all it was a very busy and demanding week, it was also one that was very fun and educational, as I got to experience a side to working with nitrate that was complimentary to, but very much different than the nitrate identification I have been doing so far. I learnt much more about the possible ‘problems’ with nitrate decomposition and collection management and also the change of scenery to work in such a strange place, but also a place that is very specific to the work in archive did provide a lot of energy to return to my daily tasks of nitrate identification, and I will definitely be looking at all those reels in my own little project with entirely ‘new’ eyes!
By Ilse van der Spoel, intern at EYE Collections