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An eye-opening week working at Wellcome

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By | In the Library

Thomasin Summerford shares her experience of a one week placement in our Moving Image and Sound Collection.

Arriving through the swing doors of the Wellcome Trust building in Euston Square, one enters a reverie of contemporary glass and steel, the clinking of tableware echoing through its airy atrium café, and of people at work across its eight floors of open plan offices high above. Chunkily painted twentieth century paintings of hospital wards and surgeons adorn the walls of the waiting areas, a reminder of the vast history of the establishment, while a glittering sculpture hangs serenely like an oversized molecule, looking towards its modernity. I pressed my nose against the window of the glass lift shuttling me upwards to the third floor, it was my ‘Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’ moment, and the Moving Image and Sound Collection was my destination for a one week work placement. All I really wanted to do was get in a windowless room and get my hands on the dusty box of old films that I knew was waiting for me.

Photograph of an eye

Still from the film Nystagmus by Richard E Bonney, 1950.

I wasn’t disappointed, a collection of 50 odd 16mm ophthalmology films (donated by the British Medical Association), in varying conditions, was mine to organise. Armed with a pair of white gloves (every TV archivist’s costume), a packet of acid detection strips, a cupboard of new cans, a chinagraph pencil, and let’s not forget, a mammoth Steenbeck to view the films on, I set to work. What I wanted at the end of the week was a detailed inventory of all of the films, with conservation recommendations, and a tidy pile of canned films to be stored away ready for digitisation.

As I arranged the columns of my Excel inventory I thanked my lucky stars that I had swatted up on my spreadsheet know-how at my last work placement. I don’t know where those IT skills disappeared to post GCSE! The information I aimed to collect for each film at this stage was the title on box, the date the film was made, provenance, edge codes (which would tell me when the film stock was made and estimate of a date of production if one wasn’t stated), film gauge, format, and the condition of container and film.

There were several stages to the week’s work: arranging the collection into groups based on age, theme or producer, numbering the cans then placing acid detection strips into the cans and boxes ready for review in 48 hours. The next stage was to battle with the films, in what I have come to affectionately term ‘film wrangling’ – watching the films on the Steenbeck without tying myself up in the celluloid in the process. Writing brief summaries of the contents of each film was the more productive outcome of this wrangling. I also included the type of film (master or print), date and title in credits, any sensitive information and a closer inspection of the condition of the film material.

Lens extraction from an eyeball

Still from the film Mechanical Forces in Intracapsular Cataract Extraction, 1952.

Not usually a squeamish person, watching these films really tested my resolve. Close up footage of eyes being stitched, lenses being removed through corneas, prosthetics being fitted and retinal detachment made for some colourful (and black and white) viewing, thanks to the Medical Illustration Department of the Institute of Ophthalmology in London, amongst others. The majority of the small 50-100 ft reels, were produced by the Institute in the 1950s and 1960s.

An unexpected find amongst the films was a set of nine amateur films that appear to have been posted between A. Wilfred Adams and Dr. G. C. Anderson, and depict a journey around the Caribbean (Trinidad and Jamaica). Anderson was the Secretary of the British Medical Association’s World Tour in 1935.

Woman with glasses and hat

Still from the film San Fernando. An amateur film by A Wilfred Adams and G C Anderson. c.1939.

Overall the films were in good condition, considering the way they had arrived stored in dusty broken boxes, many not in cans. By the end of the week I had, just about, achieved my aim. A table full of neatly stacked cans of film stood before me, and a table of neatly stacked information on a spreadsheet accompanied it.

Thomasin Summerford completed her Media Archive Apprenticeship in November 2015 after placements at the East Anglian Film Archive and Science Photo Library. Angela Saward, Curator of Moving Image and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library acted as a mentor for Thomasin on the programme.

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