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Film Archiving as a Profession
An Interview with Eileen Bowser
Eileen Bowser's career as a film archivist and a leader of the international film archive movement spanned the second half of the twentieth century. As the curator of the film archive at the Museum of Modern Art, she inherited the responsibility of managing one of the world's most influential film collections, and experienced the special circumstances of running a film archive in an art museum. She served on the executive committee of the International Federation of Film Archives at the time that the organization was developing its standard-setting system of commissions and publications. Her personal interests as a historian led her to pursue collaborations between archives and academia that aided in the reformulation of early film studies that began in the 1970s. In effect, her testimony bears witness to the maturing of the moving image archive profession.
Eileen Bowser was born Eileen Putt in Columbia Station, Ohio, on January 18, 1928. She earned an undergraduate degree in English and art at Marietta College and a graduate degree in art history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with a master's thesis on the paintings of Tintoretto in the Scuolo de San Rocco. She joined the staff of the Museum of Modern Art Film Library in 1954 as secretary to Richard Griffith, the second curator of film after founding archivist Iris Barry. Mrs. Bowser became associate curator of the archive not long after the Film Library was renamed the Department of Film in 1966. 1 Her major publications include the revised edition of Iris Barry's D. W. Griffith, American Film Master; A Handbook for Film Archives, edited with John Kuiper; and History of the American Cinema. 2
RONALD S. MAGLIOZZI: I understand that you came to the Museum of Modern Art with no particular interest in film?
EILEEN BOWSER: I had no particular knowledge or experience. I didn't go to movies when I was young because it was the Depression. I came from a large family, and we lived in the country. If we went to the movies we all had to go, so it might happen once a year, except there were free screenings in the summertime when I was a very little girl, in a public park. Mostly, as I remember, they were grade B westerns that had probably run their course. I can certainly remember watching the horses and the cowboys.
RM: When Richard Griffith hired you, he wasn't looking for someone who had expertise in film. 3 I imagine that there weren't a lot of people who were experts in film.
EB: Well, that's for certain. There were no film courses in those days, much less a degree program in film. People came from other backgrounds. Of course, many of them came as fans of film. Dick Griffith had come to the Museum right out of college because he'd been in contact with Iris Barry while he was still in school and arranged some of the very first screenings of the Museum's films at Haverford. 4 So that was how he came to be her assistant.
RM: Who did you work with when you first joined the Film Library? Were you exposed to a staff of film experts within the department? [End Page 132]
EB: That's certainly where I met Jay Leyda, when he was working on the Que Viva Mexico film project. Charles Laughton came in and looked at films in preparation for making Night of the Hunter. The Gishes came in, and Herman Weinberg, of course. 5 I met a lot of the film people through John Adams, who was an assistant to Richard Griffith, and Chris Bishop, who was working in Film Circulation for Margareta Akermark. 6 Chris Bishop was the son of the poet, John Peale Bishop, and he and John Adams had been friends. We got together and decided that what we...