December 2, 2014  |  Film
An Interview with Art Wehrhahn, MoMA Film Vault Manager
Art Wehrhahn at work in The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center in Hamlin, PA. Photo: Mary Keene

Art Wehrhahn at work in The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center in Hamlin, PA. Photo: Mary Keene

Those of you who follow my blog posts know I generally write about issues relating to the MoMA film collection. When my colleague and dear friend Art Wehrhahn announced his retirement this summer, it seemed fitting to devote a blog post to an interview with Art that examines an extraordinary career spanning more than four decades.

How long have you worked with the MoMA collection?
I’ve worked since late 1969 on the collection, which we first received at Fort Lee Film Storage. I was working there as a film inspector for NBC News and ABC News, and managing several commercial accounts. This was a large collection of nitrate film, which MoMA wanted to store with us, followed shortly by their acetate collection. It quickly grew to be almost a full-time job, taking care of such a large collection.

When and where did you first start working with the MoMA collection?
I became a contract employee (paid by Fort Lee Film) around the early 1970s. The Museum would re-reimburse my weekly salary, and I was able to carry a staff card at the time, but I was not directly employed by MoMA.

How did you become a vault manager (or Vault Man, as we love to call you)?
LOL! I first began to be the vault manager around the same time, and one of the film shippers in NYC, Andy Haas, started referring to me as Vault Man, and even made up a t-shirt, which I still have, with an ICC film shipping case as the logo on the chest.

What were your duties and responsibilities?
Ahh, that’s a long one. I worked closely with our curator of the collection, Eileen Bowser, and my duties were to accession the new films coming into the collection, assigning a finder number, which we now call an LST (location) number, and labeling the films. I also managed the paperwork and packed films for shipments to MoMA, laboratories, studios, and other venues. When films returned, I also logged the films in, and created records for new films and assigned locations within the vaults for all films. At first, this was all analog, on written Receiving Notices, and a card file. Then, as the Museum began using computers, and we created the STAR program, a lot more data and information on films could be easily kept. We still retain the card file to this day to maintain a paper trail and as a disaster-recovery system. My responsibilities were to the safe handling, storage, shipment, and maintenance of the collection, which meant film repairs, perforation repairs, and minor editing and splicing. I needed to inspect films for projection, both at MoMA and other venues. In addition, I was responsible for security of the information, and the collection. I reported to Eileen, and the chief curator, but I retained a close relationship with our film shipping staff in NY, and the other curators, such as yourself, and the film preservation manager—now, and for a long time, Peter Williamson.

How has film storage evolved over the four decades of your career?
Well, when I first started, of course, most film was 16mm or 35mm, and on nitrate or acetate cellulose stock. Both of those needed careful attention to the storage environment, so that decomposition didn’t set in. Now, our films are preserved on more stable polyester, and a variety of other mediums such as digital Betacam videotapes, and DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages), which are basically high-definition hard drives, and other electronic media.

Do you have a preferred task in the process of being a vault manager?
I love working on films that Peter has restored from our collection. It’s great to see a new copy of a film, such as an older nitrate film, that has been lovingly restored to a condition very similar to what audiences might have seen on the screen back in the day. It not only entails creating a catalog record for it in the database, but physically running it down for footage, adding our new MoMA logo, and getting an accurate footage count, so we can tell how long it will run on the projectors in the theaters.

The nameplate on Art Wehrhahn's office door in Hamlin. The film it refers to, In the Aisles of the Wild, is a silent 1912 Biograph Film directed by D. W. Griffith. All of the rooms in the Bartos Center have plates that announce a Biograph film and cheekily refer to what goes on in the room and/or the person who inhabits the office space.

The nameplate on Art Wehrhahn’s office door in Hamlin. The film it refers to, In the Aisles of the Wild, is a silent 1912 Biograph Film directed by D. W. Griffith. All of the rooms in the Bartos Center have plates that announce a Biograph film and cheekily refer to what goes on in the room and/or the person who inhabits the office space. Photo: Mary Keene

You were part of the team that envisioned The Celeste Bartos International Film Study Center. What was your contribution?
Well, I was on the design team with about five of us as a core team. Of course, we received advice and consultation from the entire film department, plus our in-house architect, and a couple of project managers we hired. We also had the backing of the entire Museum, including Security and Operations. Most of my contributions went into the storage systems in the vaults, and film handling and inspection areas. I’m very proud of the film inspection room, where four or five people can work at stations, and wind down and inspect film, and then turn around and put the information in our database. I worked closely with our in-house architect to set up the rewinders, lighting, exhaust system, and equipment for maintaining the collection. I’ve also been managing the facility since it’s completion in January of 1996.

Tell me about the nitrate burn tests that were done in preparation for the construction of the Bartos nitrate building.
The burn tests came about as a result of an idea that Eileen had, which was a concept of storing small amounts (no more than 2,000 feet) of flammable nitrate film in smaller cubby holes arranged one above the other in a stack and next to each other. Each cubby hole would be insulated from it’s neighbor cubby on both sides, and top and bottom with an insulating material. This way, instead of the then-conventional wisdom of losing an entire vault to a nitrate fire, we would only lose perhaps 10% or less of a vault. The burn tests were initiated to see if such a concept would work, and what materials would accomplish this. Although Eileen, Peter, and I designed the tests, we needed expert help from U.S. Testing, shelving manufacturers, the architectural team for the facility, and many other contributors throughout the archival world.
We decided to have shelving manufacturers send samples to a location in northwest New Jersey, which was a safe, outdoor area, and we had U.S. Testing monitor and set up the actual burn tests and comply with safety concerns. The manager of the test site was a film vault manager and also a county fire official. From these tests, we were able to insulate the cabinets containing the cubby holes to our satisfaction. Shortly after, we shared the information we obtained from our tests with our colleagues at The Library of Congress and UCLA Film & Television Archives, who were also planning to build their own new storage facilities. They, in turn, copied our designs.

Art Wehrhahn inspects a reel. Photo: Mary Keene

Art Wehrhahn inspects a reel. Photo: Mary Keene

Do you have a favorite film?
Well, that would be like asking if I had a favorite child or grandchild! I like the classics, such as Casablanca, but I really like 1950s-era science fiction, monster, and space films, in addition to the classic Universal horror films, such as Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Dracula. I like some of today’s films as well, mostly those by Steven Spielberg. I also like animation, both old and new, from Disney and Pixar.

Tell me about an experience that best sums up your career.
I think my proudest and most memorable experience was on June 20, 1996, when we opened The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, after all the planning and construction. It was a perfect summer day, and the facility was packed with MoMA staff, officers and trustees, friends and guests from other archives, and members of the press. It was a magical and proud day, indeed.

Have you met any celebrities?
A few, but my most memorable was being introduced to Miss Lillian Gish at a MoMA party.

What do you plan to do on your first day of retirement?
Well, it will be December, and if it’s a warm day, I’ll go fly fishing for trout. It it’s cold, and snowy, I might go skiing!

What will you miss about MoMA in your retirement, if anything?
I’ll still see the people I work with in Hamlin, but I’ll miss working with my colleagues in NY and the world, and, of course, the fabulous film collection we have.

While we will eventually find a new vault manager for The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center in Hamlin, PA, filling Art’s shoes will be a daunting task. More than 40 years of experience and unparalleled dedication to nurturing, safeguarding, and maintaining a collection as vast as the film holdings of The Museum of Modern Art is rare at any time, but especially so in today’s job-jumping world.</p>

Thank you, Artie, for being such a steadfast constant for your colleagues, the field, and the collection. Now go fishing!</em>