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Lecture poster

By Aeroplane to Pygmyland lecture poster.

Peck demonstrates camera

Peck demonstrates use of Akeley camera to a group of Dem men. San Francisco Chronicle, March 20, 1927.

Magic sticks

Magic sticks wrapped in Agfa film pak. National Museum of Natural History Catalog #338248.

On the Home Page
Korean official and servant. One of a series of 18 watercolor paintings on mulberry paper collected by William Woodville Rockhill, secretary of the U.S. Legation to China (1884-88). Ms. 7339.

Bargaining in Belgium

Digital video: Belgian Farm
35mm color print. 11 min.

In this scene from an educational film, a farm owner and butcher bargain over the sale of a cow. Watch for the hand slapping.

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Publicity still from The Forbidden Islands: The Fiji Islands and Native Village Life

Publicity still from The Forbidden Islands: The Fiji Islands and Native Village Life, a 19 educational film produced by Martin Moyer.

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NAA and HSFA collections received between 1997 and 2002 are listed here.


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Expeditionary Film Featured in Material Culture Symposium

"Celluloid Illusions: Reflections on the Motion Picture" was the topic of the most recent Smithsonian Forum on Material Culture, which included a showing of motion picture film taken by anthropologist Matthew Stirling (1896-1975) and associates on the Netherlands-American Expedition to New Guinea in 1926-1927, now preserved in the collections of the Human Studies Film Archives. The film was presented by HSFA post-doctoral fellow Amy Staples, who discussed expeditionary filmmaking and collecting practices as forms of transcultural encounters mediated through objects of western technology, particularly the camera.

To illustrate the notion that perceptions of magic by both parties played a central role in actual colonial encounters, as well as in "first contact" scenarios constructed on film, Staples showed a clip from Stirling's lecture film By Aeroplane to Pygmyland (Wonderen uit Pygmyland). In one sequence, photographer Richard Peck magically produces beads and shells from the back of his motion picture camera, which he trades with Papuans for ethnological artifacts. But according to Staples, an alternative history of the encounter can be glipsed through a set of finely carved tooth-pick size "magic sticks" which the Dem (Nogullo Pygmies) presented to Stirling to transform into matches. Curiously, one bundle was encased in a discarded Agfa film pak (see image on left), perhaps indicating Dem acceptance of the camera as a magical, transformative object. These transcultural encounters and exchange relations illustrate the entangled histories of exploration, anthropology, museum collection, filmmaking and archival practices.

In approaching film as material culture, Staples traced the complex social history of Stirling's film collections in various international archives, proposing the notion of the film archives as a "contact zone" where materials are rediscovered, reconstructed, re-edited and reinterpreted by different audiences. She argued that motion picture films, because of their mutability and reproducibility, pose a unique challenge to material culture studies .

Educational Films, Ethnographic Treasures

The popularity of videotape has lead school and public media libraries across the nation to discard, exchange and occasionally even auction on eBay a wealth of 16mm educational film prints no longer considered valuable for classroom use. Yet cultural heritage institutions such as the Human Studies Film Archives consider these films to be a rich record of the American educational system, especially the ways that foreign cultures were understood and taught over the last half of the 20th century. For this reason, the HSFA recently acquired 127 educational films documenting the North American Indian experience that were produced in the 1970s and early 1980s. These include:

  • At the Time of Whaling (1974), documenting whaling activities in the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska
  • Legends of Tanana (1973) demonstrating passing of Athabascan legends to the next generation as cultural heritage
  • Those Who Sing Together (1977) exploring the significance of music and dance to the Indian people of the Plains and Pacific Northwest
  • Maria of the Pueblos (1971) tracing the life of San Ildefonso (New Mexico) potterer Maria Martinez.

The newly acquired films, many of which are no longer distributed in any format, were donated to the archives by an Alaskan Public School District media library. The films are now considered a study collection, but as individual titles are identified as endangered, they will become part of the archival collection and slated for preservation. Visitors can view these and other HSFA films and videos at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Suitland, MD, where the archives moved last March.

The film archives boasts a collection of more than 700 educational films produced for use by students at every level, the earliest dating from the late 1940s. In 1994, the HSFA acquired more than 300 titles from two educational media centers in Michigan, and two years later, it received the complete works of Martin Moyer, an educational filmmaker from Seattle. In addition to his 54 titles, Moyer also donated promotional records and unedited footage that he shot in the South Pacific in the early 1940s.

Are Your Photographs and Audiotapes at Risk?

Anthropologists seeking professional guidance in preserving their research materials will be thrilled to learn that the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records has produced three additional chapters in its Guide to Preserving Anthropological Records:

The newest entrees were written by anthropologist and archivist Willow Roberts Powers and funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, which encourages the preservation of unpublished records significant for research on the history of anthropology. A final installment of the guide, "Managing Electronic Records," is planned.

More News ...

Publication date: August 2003

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