In 1932 Alfred Barr, the Museum’s founding director, stressed the importance of introducing “the only great art form peculiar to the twentieth century” to “the American public which should appreciate good films and support them.” Museum Trustee John Hay Whitney—who, in addition to collecting modern painting, produced films in partnership with Hollywood’s David O. Selznick—was chosen as the first chairman of the Museum’s Film Library, a distinguished position he held from 1935 to 1951.
Whitney knew the collection could be assembled only by those who made the movies. He sent film curator Iris Barry to Hollywood to persuade industry leaders to donate prints, a radical concept that startled stars and producers alike. At a reception and screening in the Hollywood’s famous Pickfair mansion, Barry illustrated film’s brief but important history, demonstrated the fragility of the medium, and argued that it should be safeguarded. Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century–Fox, Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Lloyd, Walt Disney, William S. Hart, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and David O. Selznick, among others, soon responded with donations of prints.
In 1936 Barry traveled through Europe and the Soviet Union to acquire international films and meet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein. So successful was this initial assembling of the collection that in 1937 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences commended the Museum with an award “for its significant work in collecting films . . . and for the first time making available to the public the means of studying the historical and aesthetic development of the motion picture as one of the major arts.”
In 1939, the same year Whitney and Selznick’s Gone With the Wind premiered, The Museum of Modern Art opened its permanent home on Fifty-third Street in Manhattan and launched the first film exhibition program in America. With crucial assistance from Lillian Gish, D. W. Griffith had been persuaded to deposit his films and papers at the Museum, facilitating the first major retrospective of a film artist—an exhibition that set the standard for the presentation and analysis of the masters of this new art form.
Today the collection includes more than 30,000 titles and ranks as one of the world’s finest museum archives of international film art. Works by the inventors of film language—the creators of its form, genres, and technology—form the cornerstones of the collection. Every major artist of the silent era is represented: Griffith, Porter, and Ince; and the Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph studio filmmakers; Lumière and Méliès from France; Chaplin and Keaton, DeMille and Fairbanks, Dreyer and Stroheim, Eisenstein and Flaherty.
The innovators and masters of the sound era are represented, too: Warner Bros., Fox, and Selznick studios; Walt Disney and Lubitsch; Ford, Walsh, Wyler, and Capra; Sternberg, Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and Renoir; Rossellini and Ophuls; Kurosawa and Ozu; Truffaut and Bergman. Films by artists Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, László Moholy-Nagy, and Paul Strand enrich the collection, as do the works of animators and contemporary experimental filmmakers such as Jane Aaron, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Connor, Ken Jacobs, Yvonne Rainer, and Andy Warhol.
In recent years, directors such as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Joel and Ethan Coen, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, John Sayles, Stanley Kubrick, and Tim Burton and producers such as Ray Stark, Albert Broccoli, Irwin Winkler, Edward Pressman, and Joel Silver have donated films to the collection. The Turner Entertainment Company has donated original materials of RKO and Warner Bros. films of the 1920s through the 1940s, to the tune of more than 629 features, including Citizen Kane and Casablanca.
American classics like It Happened One Night, Dodsworth, Nothing Sacred, Love Affair, Meet Me in St. Louis, Notorious, My Darling Clementine, On the Waterfront, Bonjour Tristesse, and Taxi Driver have been preserved in the course of collaborations with studios and distributors to safeguard surviving materials and restore damaged films, enabling new and international circulation of major examples of American film.
The collection allows the Museum to sustain an unparalleled study and exhibition program for the public, scholars, and filmmakers. This program in its varied forms has provided an education for modern artists in all mediums, and individual films have been studied by filmmakers at every level, from writers, directors, and producers to costume designers, production assistants, and grips.
The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film has one of the strongest international collections of motion pictures in the world, totaling more than 30,000 films between the permanent and study collections.
In the mid-1980s it became evident that the film collection’s size and particular conservation requirements precluded storing it at the Museum, in midtown Manhattan. The then newly appointed director of the Department of Film, Mary Lea Bandy, approached the chairman of the Trustee Committee on Film, Celeste Bartos, with the idea of creating an off-site facility to house the collection.
Ten years later, on June 20, 1996, the Museum opened The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, an $11.2-million state-of-the-art storage facility in Hamlin, Pennsylvania. The Center, designed by Davis, Brody & Associates, comprises two buildings on a wooded thirty-eight-acre estate: a 7,900-square-foot facility for the Museum’s holdings of 5,000 fragile nitrate films, dating from 1894 to 1951; and a much larger 28,000-square-foot main building that houses some 20,000 titles on acetate-based “safety stock.”
Film is a fragile medium. If improperly stored, films shrink, crack, and congeal into an inseparable mass. The color and imagery may fade, the magnetic soundtrack may separate from the base, and the film itself may flake or break apart. Eventually, the film will disintegrate and turn to dust. Only cool, stable storage conditions discourage fading and deterioration.
The Preservation Center offers a flexible system of temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults, which can adapt as the collection increases and preservation techniques advance. Each of the Center’s fifty-eight vaults has its own climate controls, since different types of film have different environmental requirements. For example, color films will fade less quickly if kept in vaults at temperatures just above freezing, whereas black-and-white and nitrate films can be satisfactorily stored at 45° F. (All film materials are better protected if humidity levels are low.)
The cans of film in the Museum’s collection are stored in the vaults according to size, type, and format. In the main building, which houses safety films, eighteen vaults on two floors are designated for color negative, color print, black-and-white fine-grain master, black-and-white negative, or black-and-white print, ranging from 8mm to 70mm in gauge.
The nitrate films are protected in thirty-four vaults in a smaller building, on shelves holding approximately one million feet of film per vault. The main building also houses three vaults for the non-film components of the collection, such as posters, production notes, books, periodicals, and photographs, as well as the videotape and Department of Media and Performance Art collection.
To ensure that all materials are acclimated properly, a conditioning room was designed that spans the width of the main building. At a temperature warmer than the vaults and cooler than the shipping area and workrooms, this “halfway house” allows films to adjust gradually on their way into or out of the vaults.
Adjacent to the conditioning room, with a view of a broad meadow, is a large work area organized into six stations with computers and repair and rewind equipment. Here, vault staff can examine, catalogue, repair, and accession new acquisitions, entering data into the online system linked directly to the Department of Film and the Study Centers at the Museum.
Offices, a staff lounge, and a conference room with film and video screening capability complete the main building.
Loans & Access
The Department of Film offers several options for access to the various collections. You can make a research appointment to visit the Film Study Center at the Museum, you can rent films through the Circulating Film and Video Library, and you can borrow films from the collection through the Film Loan Program. MoMA is a founding member of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) and abides by their rules and protocols regarding the loan of materials to FIAF member archives and non-FIAF member archives.
Institutions that can demonstrate they meet MoMA’s basic requirements for print loans may be permitted to borrow prints from the collection for limited exhibition. Please download the Policies and Procedures, Print Request Form, and Venue Report Form, and submit them, along with any other loan queries, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center is not open to the general public. For inquiries concerning the Preservation Center please email Katie Trainor at Katie_Trainor@moma.org.
The Film Study Center
The Celeste Bartos International Film Study Center offers screening facilities for viewing films from the Museum’s collection; a large selection of screenplays and dialogue continuities; extensive files of reviews, articles, and program notes; reference books; special collections; film indexes; and current periodicals. Films and documentation are made available only to scholars, researchers, and students. To request an appointment please fill out the online form. Appointments are available Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. All appointments need to be made at least three weeks in advance.
The catalog of film collection holdings is not available online. You must fill out the online form to see if a title is available for viewing. A partial list of Special Collections holdings is available.
Photo: The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center