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Friday, July 9, 2010


The Scurlock Studio Records, an Archives Center collection, contain a rich photographic record of the African American community in Washington, D.C. during the segregated years of the twentieth century. Although studio portraits predominate, there are also poignant
images of buildings which have succumbed to "progress." Shown here is a photograph of the
Republic Theatre, a movie theater in the heart of Washington's U Street business and entertainment area. This image, probably made by Addison N. Scurlock in about 1937, is represented by an original cellulose acetate negative. This negative and many others in the collection are deteriorating. Indications of the damage to this negative can be seen in the markings at the lower left of the image, as well as in the wavy line of the curb in front of the building. Despite these unfortunate physical and aesthetic alterations, the negative continues to provide us with significant historical evidence.

When the National Museum of American History acquired the Scurlock collection in the 1990s,
it was clear that the preservation of endangered negatives would be a primary challenge. The Archives Center implemented a program to freeze deteriorating negatives of historical value in order to arrest such deterioration and preserve these important visual records of people, places, and events. Because this preservation project is a major concern, many damaged Scurlock negatives have been scanned and catalogued before freezing. A random search of Scurlock images in SIRIS reveals a high percentage of damaged images, which can be disconcerting to the viewer. The explanation is the high priority assigned to digitizing and cataloguing negatives at risk, resulting in a disproportionate number of damaged images appearing in SIRIS. While many Scurlock negatives are visibly deteriorating and are dimensionally unstable, the total is smaller than the preponderance of SIRIS images might suggest; in fact, most of the negatives are in fairly good condition.

The Republic Theatre, a significant Washington landmark which opened in 1921, has vanished,
sacrificed to the construction of the Metro subway system. The theater closed in 1976 and was demolished soon afterward. This Scurlock photograph, despite its damaged state, faithfully preserves both the appearance of the building and, in its prominent film advertising, the irony of movies with all-white casts playing for exclusively black audiences in segregated businesses.

David Haberstich, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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