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Preserving the Jorge Prelorán Collection

What are Archival Records?

Archival records are vital for understanding the past, present and future. These primary resource materials document the activities and histories of individuals, groups, institutions and governments. The public and private archives where records are stored and the professional archivists who care for the materials are responsible for ensuring their long term preservation, as well as providing access for research and other uses such as documentary films.

Can you think of any films and/or television programs that use archives as a key element in the plot?

hsfa_filmequipmentArchival records include: motion picture film, video and sound recordings, still photographs, computer files, optical disks, emails, and web pages, as well as more traditional archival records such as letters, unpublished manuscripts, maps and other paper-based documents. Many families create their own archives of photographs, film, diaries, and other records and now digitize these materials so that all family members can share memories of their ancestors. Some archives have acquired these records created by ordinary people in order to understand how people lived at various times.

Does your family have archival records? Has someone located, organized and made copies to share with the family? If not, you may want to begin before memories fade and names are no longer remembered.

What does "film preservation" really mean?

The digital revolution is changing how — and where — we view film, video, and television.  It is also changing the strategies we employ to preserve our moving image heritage.  When film is damaged and deteriorating, the best way to save it is to copy it to film.  Today, many theatrical film restoration projects employ digital technologies to make preservation copies of film that is at risk.  However, these methods are, at present, too expensive for most small archives and certainly for most individuals.  For now, film-to-film copying at a film preservation laboratory is the primary way to save deteriorating film.  Healthy film — including these new preservation copies, fresh from the lab — can remain healthy for hundreds of years when stored in the right temperature and humidity.

Hermógenes Cayo
Case Study

The film in the Prelorán Collection has had an interesting life.  Most of it travelled numerous times between Argentina and the United States for film lab work and editing.  It was stored in film vaults when funding allowed, and in basements and closets when funding ran out.  It was hand-carried, a few rolls at a time, out of Argentina after the military coup of 1976.  One of Prelorán’s films was allegedly buried in a garden to hide it from military police seeking politically-charged materials.  All of this, of course, resulted in great changes of temperature and humidity that ultimately led to more than 50% of the film suffering from mild to severe acetate deterioration and color fade.

In order to save these deteriorating films, the HSFA is preserving them, as funding allows.  To date, we have secured funding to preserve nearly half of the forty films in need of the work.  We first preserved Prelorán's best-known title, Hermógenes Cayo.  Here's what was done to save this irreplaceable document of Argentine history and culture:

            • When the film arrived at the HSFA, it was inspected by the processing archivist.  The archivist checked for shrinkage, warping, brittleness, color fade, and other physical damage and deterioration.  IPI A-D strips were used to test for the level of acetate deterioration.  Because the film was found to have acetate deterioration, modest shrinkage, and color fade, it was determined that this title needed to be preserved.

            • The original film and soundtracks were sent to a film lab, in this case, to Film Technology in Hollywood, California.  The lab made repairs to splices, tears, and sprocket holes, as needed.  Hermógenes Cayo was not very shrunken, but other films with severe shrinkage require various laboratory techniques in order to copy the film.

            • The lab copied the original film to an internegative and the sound to an optical track negative, both on 16mm film stock.  These are the preservation elements that allow the film to be preserved as film.  They have been placed in HSFA's new freezing vault, and will last for hundreds of years under these conditions.

            • The film lab also created a digital video master from the preservation internegative and optical track negative.  Clones from this video master will be used to provide viewing access for personal use and large screenings.  The video clip from Hermógenes Cayo above demonstrates the quality difference between the former viewing copy (left side of frame) and the new copy (right side of frame).  Thanks to the preservation work, the new video master presents the film at it's best - sharp, clean, and with beautiful color.  It allows viewers to see the film as Prelorán intended.

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Moving Images

Suppose three generations in one family have made home movies: the grandparents have super 8mm film; the parents have ½ inch videotape; the children have digital video stored on their computer.

Do you know which one is likely to last the longest? (Roll over images for the answer.)

Hard Drive VHS Spool of Film


The average life span of a storage hard drive is just 3-5 years. Hard drives can crash and in time their software and hardware become obsolete. Videotapes have a life span of 5-30 years. The magnetic particles begin to break down and the image deteriorates. Machines that can play back the video become fewer and fewer, making the technology obsolete. But film can last well over 100 years, when stored in moderate room conditions—even much longer under low temperature and humidity.

Transferring a family's home movies to videotape, DVD or hard-drives is great for sharing with many family members. But keep the film; it will probably still be in good condition and can be re-transferred when the videotape and DVD copy can no longer be played. Besides, the original film is the best quality for transferring to new formats.

To learn more about safeguarding “born” digital media and videotape, check out our News and Resources section.

Crash, Shrink, and Burn

No medium is permanent; paper, film, computer files, even etched stone all have their weaknesses. It is an archivist's job to protect against the damages of time and environment for as long as possible by utilizing various methods including duplication and good storage conditions. Audio-visual collections pose some special preservation challenges and are susceptible to a wide range of deterioration.

Click on each image to read more.

Nitrate Acetate Age Environment
Color 16mm Mold Hard Drive

Memories Fade

It is not only important to preserve and make copies of moving images for viewing but it is essential to document the history and content of the images. The who, what, where and when of images are sometimes written down on film or video cassette boxes or in film production records but most often much of this information is in an individual’s memory. There are various ways to collect that information and to document and “annotate” moving images but what is most important is that this information is collected before memories fade or disappear altogether.

For information on documenting family moving images, check out our News and Resources section.

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National Museum of Natural History | Department of Anthropology | Collections and Archives Program