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A history of the archive

The BFI National Archive came into being in 1935, as the National Film Library (NFL), a key part of the remit of the British Film Institute (itself formed just two years earlier) to “maintain a national repository of films of permanent value”.

Ernest Lindgren and Harold Brown, the original archive team.

Ernest Lindgren and Harold Brown, the original archive team.

The idea of the archive was enshrined as one of the BFI’s prerogatives in the 1932 report Film in National Life (1932). Its initial brief was two-fold: it was to be a library of educational films distributed to schools and other educational organisations, and a repository of films (with a lending section based on a small selection of its preservation collection). It abandoned its educational prerogative in the early 1940s.

The archive and its collections

The new National Film Library (NFL) came into existence with no equipment, no starting collection of films, a minuscule budget and a staff of two. Under Ernest Lindgren, its curator (his first job title was ‘librarian’) from 1935 until his death in 1973, and his preservation officer Harold Brown – whose own formidable career spanned almost 50 years, from 1935 to 1984 – the NFL was a pioneer in developing archival and preservation practice, and established cataloguing principles that were adopted across the international archive community. To this day, the archive’s practice is based on principles established by a special committee of experts commissioned by the BFI in 1934, one of the key principles being that a master print held by the archive can under no circumstances be projected.

In June 1938, the NFL signed up as one of four founder members of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), alongside the Cinémathèque Française, the MoMA Film Library and the German Reichfilmsarchiv. Ernest Lindgren became FIAF’s treasurer in 1946, and he and the Cinémathèque Française’s Henri Langlois would be the dominant figures of international film archives for many years. The two men were often at loggerheads.

In May 1935, famous ghost-hunter (psychic researcher) Harry Price became first chairman of the NFL Committee (overseeing the archive’s work), after he donated some of his own trick films to start the collection. From its earliest years up to the 1980s, acquisition was based on the deliberations of a series of ‘selection committees’. The general selection committee, chaired by Price, determined acquisitions of feature films, while other committees oversaw selection in such subject areas as history and science.

In 1955, the NFL was renamed the National Film Archive (NFA) in order to reflect more accurately the nature of its work. At this stage the collection consisted solely of film – international, but with an emphasis on British productions. The archive began to collect some television material from around the late 1950s, and in 1993 it changed its name again – to the National Film and Television Archive (NFTVA) – acknowledging how far the television collections had grown in size and stature. Finally, in 2006, the NFTVA became the BFI National Archive.

Housing the collections

When the archive was in its infancy, the collections were housed on the premises at the BFI’s London headquarters. But as they grew, it was clear that a dedicated storage space would be necessary, which would keep the films in appropriate conditions away from heat, strong light and moisture. So, in 1940, the BFI opened its first, state-of-the-art film archive at Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire.

John Paul Getty Jr at the archive

John Paul Getty Jr at the archive

In May 1968, the BFI acquired new premises at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, which became home to the acetate (safety film) collections. A decade later, in 1978, a new site at Gaydon opened with the facilities to house nitrate film. The BFI steps up an already established programme to transfer unstable nitrate material to more stable acetate stock.

1987 saw the opening of the new, purpose-built Conservation Centre on an 11-acre site at Berkhamsted. The site is named in honour of its sponsor, John Paul Getty, whose generous donation also enabled the BFI to move to new headquarters at Stephen Street, central London, later the same year.

In 2010 the BFI secured funds from Government to build a new state-of-the-art, environmentally sustainable and architecturally pioneering film storage facility at Gaydon, allowing the long-term preservation of all the master film collection, both nitrate and safety. Material is held at minus five degrees Celsius at 35% relative humidity.

BFI Master Film Store, Gaydon

BFI Master Film Store, Gaydon
Credit: Edward Sumner

As part of the BFI’s five-year Unlocking Film Heritage programme the BFI National Archive is developing a digital infrastructure to reflect the changes in film production technology. This infrastructure will preserve digital titles, both film and TV, as well as the thousands of titles due to be digitised as part of that same programme.

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