NEA Arts Magazine

Taking a Look Back

The Museum of Modern Art Preserves American Film History


Young man in in dirty work clothes, face dirty and sweaty, eyes closed, framed between steel railings

Brute Force, 1947, starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn, is one of the films restored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City with funding from the NEA. Image courtesy of MOMA Stills Archive.

Given its extensive visual arts collection, it would be expected that New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) would receive funding only under the NEA's museum discipline. But in fact, since the 1970s, the NEA has been a major supporter of MoMA's efforts to preserve and protect its collection of approximately 23,000 films.

The museum's film department began in 1935 as a library of seminal works on film that were no longer in distribution, such as silent and international films.While its collection contains films from around the world, as part of its role as a founding member of the International Federation of Film Archives, MoMA also is committed to the acquisition and preservation of American film heritage, including classic films such as Academy Award Best Picture winners It Happened One Night (1935) and On the Waterfront (1955).

MoMA's curators consider a number of factors when selecting films for preservation, such as scarcity of surviving prints or negatives and whether the film is an "orphan," meaning it no longer has a rights holder or will be lost without the museum's help. In FY 2008, a $50,000 Arts Endowment grant supported the preservation of ten American films from MoMA's archive, including His Majesty, the American. Starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the romantic comedy was the first motion picture produced by the fledgling United Artists studio. Like others in the collection, His Majesty, the American had been copied onto 16mm acetate film some time around World War II to keep it from being lost when 35mm nitrate film became scarce. In restoring the film to its original 35mm format, conservators extended intertitles to their original length and repaired tinting, resulting in a print of superior quality that's closer to the original.

The museum's conservation program ultimately results in greater accessibility, as the restored films can be used for MoMA's public programs, screened at film festivals, or viewed by film scholars. According to conservator Peter Williamson, "[It] opens a window into what filmmaking was like."This glimpse into the past is the reason MoMA recently focused on restoring six films from its Thomas Edison Company Collection produced between 1913 and 1917. Although this period in the company's history previously had been dismissed by scholars as unimportant, MoMA maintains that these works are valuable as indicators of culture at the time the films were produced and of what people then considered entertaining.

A number of the restored films will eventually be available on DVD, expanding their reach considerably. However, just as a print of a painting is not the same as the original, MoMA respects each film as a piece of modern art, recognizing the value of restoring works to their original format. As former film curator Steven Higgins asserted, MoMA's mission is to "restore films as film and make them available as film."