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Reviewed by:
  • Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema
  • Barbara Selznick (bio)
Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema by Haidee WassonUniversity of California Press, 2005

The Museum of Modern Art's Film and Media Library historically has served as a rich and important resource. Scholars, critics, publishers, and fans—whether they know it or not—have probably come into contact with films, research, and/or photographs from MoMA's collection. What many of us may not have realized, however, is how much more we owe to MoMA's early Film Library for its efforts to legitimize film as an art form and its early work to archive films and relevant reference materials. Haidee Wasson's fascinating and thoroughly researched Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema focuses our attention on the significance of MoMA's Film Library by examining the library from its creation and early development in 1935 through the end of the decade. Wasson explores the cultural moment that brought together changes in museology, the film industry, and institutions of social uplift to make the unlikely combination of film and art possible in a studious museum setting. Wasson's work is original and fresh for its exploration of both nontheatrical exhibition and her focus on the interwar period.

Wasson highlights some of the major contributions made by the Film Library to the field of cinema studies. For example, the Film Library began the process of classifying and archiving films by their year of production (other, nonchronological classifications were equally possible); the library helped to develop a network of film societies and clubs throughout the United States; and the Society of Cinematologists, which would eventually become the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, began from meetings held at MoMA. Beyond these, Wasson stresses that the exhibition environment created by MoMA was one of the Film Library's most important contributions to cinema culture. At MoMA, viewers were asked to take films seriously. Although audiences did not always oblige, by placing films in a contemplative museum setting, the Film Library required that fans and cultural elites question the assumption that film was a "business pure and simple," designed to entertain the masses.

The creation of museums as a nontheatrical distribution window for films required that [End Page 136] the MoMA staff (most significantly the legendary Film Library curator Iris Barry and her husband John Abbott, the Film Library's director) convince several groups that a Film Library belonged in a museum of art. The museum's trustees, for example, had more traditional notions about what belonged in a museum of art, even if it was a museum of modern art. By stressing the importance of particular "great directors" and including many European films in the collection, the Film Library staff connected film to other forms of "high art," thereby appeasing the trustees.

Another group that helped shape the theatrical experiences created by MoMA was the Rockefeller Foundation, which provided the key funding for the Film Library for its first few years. The Rockefeller Foundation had a strong interest in the educational potential of film. In order to meet the educational and outreach requirements of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Film Library needed to actively engage in film exhibition; however, to satisfy the museum's trustees, these screenings had to avoid resembling a night at the picture palace. The Film Library, therefore, created a space in which films could be watched in a serious and intelligent context.

Wasson clearly and astutely lays out the conflicting interests that the Film Library faced. Working with new methods of museology, MoMA was designed, through the construction of traveling exhibitions, to benefit people throughout the United States, not just those who visited the New York museum. To fit in with the goals of the museum, then, the Film Library did not just archive films and information about them but also distributed and exhibited films. Wasson offers a particularly interesting examination of the considerations that went into constructing and distributing these early film programs, especially during a politically heated time of nationalism and insecurity (films from the Soviet...


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pp. 136-138
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