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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Treasures From American Film Archives: Beautiful Japan

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

In this new world of internet accessbility and, even before then, DVDs, how does an archives know how their collections are being used?  We don't.

By chance, of course, an archivist may meet a professor who cheerfully announces that she uses a clip of one of the archives' films in a class. Such a chance meeting happened at this year's Northeast Historic Film Summer Film Symposium in Bucksport, Maine, when I met a professor of Japanese at the University of Rochester who screens a film clip from Beautiful Japan (1917-18) that is included in the National Film Peservation Foundation's first "Treasures From American Film Archives", DVD (first published in 2000). In an email Dr. Joanne Bernardi describes her use of the film clip:

"I use the excerpt in a class called "Tourist Japan," which explores Japan as destination in twentieth century visual and material culture. In addition to weekly screenings, I show short excerpts in class, and Beautiful Japan is one of them. Students then write a response to them on the course website. Other films that I show in the class are a NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] "The Big Picture" DVD ("You in Japan," 1957), a Japan Tourist Bureau film from the 1980s called "Destination Japan," and the 1932 Technicolor Fitzgerald travel film that is on the "China Seas" DVD, called "Japan in Cherry Blossom Time" (I think there are many films with this same title--a very popular subject!). Of everything I show, though, "Beautiful Japan" is the earliest footage, and the students are always bowled over by it. The excerpt is a good choice, showing footage of the Ainu bear ritual in Hokkaido and ending with a scene of foreign tourists dancing with Japanese women in kimono. I knew about the film for some time, but had not had a chance to see any of it myself until the Treasures DVD came out."

Benten Festival celebrated on Shiraishi Island.  Benten (Benzaiten) is the Goddess of the Sea and one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan. (This is not the same clip that is included in the "Treasures" DVD.)  Beautiful Japan was filmed by Benjamin Brodsky, an early travel-lecturer, who made the film under the auspices of the Imperial Japanese Railways.

With forty plus film clips on YouTube we can tell how many people are viewing and for how long and we can see the geographic distribution and if the clip is linked, embedded or shared but, still, we do not know HOW people are using HSFA's film clips.  Is not how more important than how many?

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