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The Moving Image 6.2 (2006) 1-29

Just Another Form of Ideology?
Ethical and Methodological Principles in Film Restoration
Andreas Busche
[End Page 1]

Since the 1980s, a serious debate about the ethics of film restoration has existed among archivists, historians, preservationists, and restorers. Numerous motion pictures have disappeared completely or survive only in a fragmentary or corrupted form. As a result, the urge to restore this lost or distorted history has become a main concern in archives and museums. However, film restoration still struggles to establish a binding professional code, comparable to those already in place in fine art restoration and heritage conservation such as the ICOM Code of Ethics, the AIC Code of Ethics, UNESCO's Memory of the World Guidelines, or the ECCO Professional Guidelines.1

Every profession that aspires to technical vocational recognition sooner or later faces the necessity of developing codified guidelines for professionals working in the field.2 Such an intellectual framework is essential, determining parameters for maneuvering and serving as a reference point for an ethical conduct. A professional code establishes the basis for a professional self-conception and encourages a permanent critical assessment of work produced in the field. Hence, a professional code constitutes a concise framework of the discipline: its raison d'être as a profession (and science), its theoretical and ethical principles, its historical conception within a broader cultural and social context, its service to the public, and, last but not least, the methodology that brings these intellectual considerations effectively into practical application. A profession without such a codification ultimately lacks the basis for conducting its work in a responsible manner.

This article's foremost concern is to discuss a theoretical and ethical framework for film restoration and, consequently, propose a methodological approach toward some very specific, well-defined practical problems. The methodological principles derived from this discussion can only focus here on a narrow aspect of film restoration, namely the restoration of a black-and-white silent film from positive prints. Actual film restoration entails far more complex issues than discussed here. My purpose is to demonstrate that certain methodological principles are indeed useful. Ideally, my examination will lay a foundation for more elaborate methodologies. Discussion of an ethical and theoretical framework ultimately constitutes the first crucial stage for developing a consistent methodology. Such a methodology is an integral part of a professional code, since it constantly negotiates between the theoretical and the practical. Hence, a starting point is a careful examination of concepts such as ethics, restoration theory, methodology, and practice and how they interrelate for the establishment of a professional code.

Before I continue, however, it is necessary to briefly outline my definition of restoration and distinguish it from preservation, duplication (or reproduction), and reconstruction. This step is particularly important, since a binding terminology has not yet been established. This ambiguity is a prevailing problem in the conservation profession [End Page 2] where, in 1984, indifference toward definitions of restoration and conservation forced the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to coin the rather awkward term conservator-restorer as a compromise.3

The distinction between restoration and preservation in film preservation is slightly easier to determine but nevertheless still causes dispute. We can refer to Paul Read's and Mark Paul Meyer's general statement that the term restoration (in contrast to preservation) is used when "differences are created between the materials you start with and the materials you end with."4 This definition seems to make perfect sense, but, unfortunately, it is not so simple. In relation to film objects (or film artifacts, as I prefer to call them: a print, a negative, a dup positive, or even a sound negative), the lines between restoration, preservation, and duplication are blurred, because every duplication—supposedly a "neutral" process—inevitably introduces qualitative changes in photographic information: a generational loss of quality and changes due to timing.

To reach common ground, we have to mind our terminology. According to Read and Meyer, restoration encompasses the "whole spectrum of film duplication...


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