Decant Day, 20 July 2016: Freezing Film

By Stacey Anderson, Archive Director, South West Film and Television Archive

The South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA) is the largest regional film archive in the UK and one of the founding partners for the History Centre project.

The current focus for decanting is the Museum and Art Gallery, and the film and television archive won’t physically move across to the History Centre until later in the project. However, there are some things we can do now to ensure we’re as organised as possible, and to demonstrate good archival best practice and management for the long term preservation of the collections we will be caring for as a partnership.

SWFTA behind the scenes
The South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA) is the largest regional film archive in the UK

With that in mind, and as a nod to my commitment as a professional Archivist, my colleagues at SWFTA and I have been working with the Museum and Art Gallery’s Conservation Officer to prepare for the eventual decant of the film collections by testing some freezing. This will serve as one of the storage solutions that the History Centre will provide for the collections!

Our first test has been on some magnetic film, which accounts for about 60% of our film collections. SWFTA also looks after some 30,000 tapes across multiple collections and in various formats though cassetted magnetic tape content cannot be frozen and will be kept within a cold storage environment.

The idea to test magnetic film in a freezer has come about as a result of:

  • consultation with collection experts
  • some intensive mapping activity to determine exactly how much magnetic and non-magnetic material we have
  • the investigation of solutions for storing unstable media content

When we started our hope was that freezing will provide us with a long-term solution for preserving SWFTA’s important film material, as well as photographic material from across the History Centre collections, for generations to come.

The freezer used for the testing of our magnetic film
The freezer used for the testing of our magnetic film

Given the volume of the collections we hold at SWFTA and the fact that much of it has significant screen heritage status, it’s vital that we get the long-term physical storage for it right.

To run the test we selected two magnetic reels of film from our SWFTA-owned core collection. They have already been digitised at high standard so this minimises the danger of losing any of our content.

The two reels were packaged up and placed in the freezer for a month. Following this they were removed, left to defrost and then viewed to see if there had been any changes to their quality.

The test was a success and despite a month in the freezer and a fortnight of thawing out, the film plays perfectly fine!

The reels took two weeks to defrost before we could view them however, and this could prove to be too lengthy given the amount of film we care for.

Film Freeze Collage
The Museum Conservation Officer putting the film to the freeze test!

We are now considering running a second test with a shorter defrosting period.

Running experiments like this now means we have time to tweak and adapt the process to the point where the freezing is as efficient as possible without damaging our collections.

Investing the time to get this right now can only bode well for when we move everything to the History Centre in time for its opening in spring 2020!

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2 thoughts on “Decant Day, 20 July 2016: Freezing Film”

    1. Thanks for your message Dr Mansfield. The City Museum and Art Gallery is due to close at the end of Saturday 3 September. Best wishes.

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