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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Enter the Ice Age: New Cold Storage for the Human Studies Film Archives

The basic rule for the preservation of audio-visual materials is keep them cool and dry.  If left at room temperature both photographic and magnetic media can begin to show signs of deterioration in as brief a time as 10 years.  Early deterioration can include dye fading in color images, shrinkage of the photographic base or the breakdown of the binders used in magnetic tapes. This winter the Human Studies Film Archives (HSFA) will move its original, preservation and master film, video and audio collections into new environmentally controlled storage installed in the renovated Pod 3 of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center (SI - MSC).  The new 3-chambered storage facility will provide temperature and humidity controlled storage for our original magnetic media (video and audio recordings) at 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 30%  relative humidity and a deep freeze chamber for storage of our original, preservation and master film materials at -4 degrees Fahrenheit with a staging room between the two chambers at 55 deg. F and 30% RH.

Since 1995, the HSFA has maintained an off-site cold storage vault in leased space.  Bringing these invaluable collections back into the security of an SI facility represents a significant improvement in the safe stewardship of our collections.  The HSFA holds an estimated 8 million feet of motion picture film equal to approximately 10,000 individual rolls.  Along with the motion picture film collections, there are an estimated 250,000 still images. In addition, the HSFA has approximately 5,000 videotapes currently stored in an aging walk-in cooler located in the basement of the Natural History Building and an almost equal number of original audio recordings that are currently stored in room conditions at MSC.  Providing new state-of-the-art cold and cool storage will ensure optimal longevity for all of our collections.

The move of our film collections into sub-zero storage conditions requires a considerable amount of advance preparation.  Our new film storage strategy calls for “passive humidity control” which involves protecting the film from any potential moisture condensation that may occur upon removal from the vault or from unexpected temperature fluctuations.  To provide this protection, the HSFA will follow guidelines established by former Smithsonian researcher Mark McCormick-Goodhart. (To read more click here.) The guidelines require encapsulating each individual roll of film in a zip-lock plastic bag with an outer protective plastic bag enclosure for the labeled archival plastic film cans.  The secondary enclosures will include silica-gel dessicant packets along with humidity indicator cards for additional safety and monitoring. 

In the spirit of the quest for permanence and immortality and to mark the autumn season, here is a brief video clip from John Hansen’s footage of the Egyptian “Tombs of the Nobles.”  By using the “Time Weighted Preservation Index” (TWPI) developed by the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, NY our current film storage conditions of 40 degrees F. and 35% RH can achieve an estimated life-span of 518 years for healthy film.  (To find out more about the IPI and TWPI click here.)  The new sub-zero freezing conditions are expected to provide virtually unlimited safe storage for our film collections.   Currently, we can marvel at the images of 3000 year old inscriptions captured on film in our collection 99.10.14 [John V. Hansen Travel Footage of Egypt, ca. 1926-1930].  Now we can hope to preserve them as motion picture images for yet another 3000 years! 

Thanks to Karma Foley for the video.

Mark White


  1. Movies simply combine moving images and sounds but they have become an essential ingredient of our lives.

  2. Storage units are great for saving human studies fim archives. You can prevent the deterioration of film, video, and audio collections this way.

  3. How is the Smithsonian controlling the air conditions in the storage facility? Assuming it's not with silica gel packets.