The lost world of filmstrips

Professor Tom Rice, University of St Andrews
RSE Research Network awardee

Professor Tom Rice. Photograph: Gayle McIntyre
Professor Tom Rice. Photograph: Gayle McIntyre

The 35mm filmstrip, which consisted of a series of 40-50 still images, often with an accompanying audio commentary, was one of the most versatile and prevalent media forms in the mid-20th century. It was deployed in education and industry and used by church groups, the military, and governments.

The filmstrip represented a low-cost, resilient alternative to portable film and slide projectors and was a significant, if ephemeral, precursor to contemporary digital formats, such as PowerPoint. Yet, despite its widespread use—from rural communities in Scotland to government health campaigns across the British Empire—the filmstrip is largely forgotten, both by the archives that hold these materials and by the scholars, educationalists, and artists who might use them.

Tom Rice, a Professor of Film Studies at the University of St Andrews, was awarded an RSE Research Network award to further the project The Lost World of Filmstrips. He has sought to bring together archivists and scholars from across disciplines and countries to locate, examine, and uncover this lost media form both in UK archives and within media history.

Because 35mm filmstrips have historically fallen across and between media forms and disciplines, Professor Rice explained that the medium has often evaded collection and institutional curation. This has resulted in much of it being split into disparate holdings, divorced of context, and adrift from related materials such as films, books, and photographs.

Through the RSE-funded Research Network, Professor Rice has worked closely with many collaborators to identify overlooked, uncatalogued, or misplaced collections, establishing best practice models for cataloguing, digitising, and their broader dissemination in education or creative projects.

The RSE award provided the incentive, support, and institutional legitimacy to connect archives and scholars across the UK on a critically neglected topic. Indeed, a strength (and joy) of the RSE Research Network has been working with a range of scholars and institutions. We have run collaborative events, organised research visits, held regular online network meetings, produced a website, and organised three workshops across the UK.”

Professor Tom Rice. Photograph: Gayle McIntyre
Professor Tom Rice. Photograph: Gayle McIntyre

At the workshops, the group showcased and worked through rediscovered materials. The first workshop, Lost and In-between: Locating and Revisiting Obsolete Media, was held at the National Library of Scotland and worked directly with PhD students. This was followed by Still, Unseen: Relocating Filmstrips of the British Empire, an event held at The National Archives in London which piloted new ways of presenting materials remotely. The final event, Next, Click: Finding a Future for Filmstrips, was held at the University of St Andrews and included contributions from European collaborators.

Professor Rice noted that because the project has shone a light on this hidden historical material, archivists working within heritage institutions have now located and identified filmstrips and are increasingly aware of what filmstrips are and of what their place can be, both in media histories and within their wider collections. Professor Rice indicated that the project has identified hundreds of previously overlooked materials, including the uncatalogued records of Common Ground–the largest postwar filmstrip publisher–held at the Museum Of English Rural Life at the University of Reading; an extensive collection of BBC Radiovision materials (1964-1990); instructional military filmstrips at the Imperial War Museum; and an extensive collection produced by the Colonial Office (1948-1958), housed at the National Library of Scotland.

Professor Tom Rice. Photograph: Gayle McIntyre
Professor Tom Rice. Photograph: Gayle McIntyre

Speaking about the future of the research, Professor Rice said,

The RSE Research Network has generated ongoing partnerships, initiating the discovery of new materials and approaches to media history. In providing the time and space for ideas and partnerships to develop, based on the findings and needs of those involved, the network has effectively shaped a “proof of concept” for future work on filmstrips. It has identified multiple potential research projects and wider public engagement plans while also supporting creative work; an artist filmmaker is now working with colonial filmstrips discovered through the Network.”

Professor Rice explained that the Network has forthcoming events, talks, educational workshops, and funding applications planned, including a recently submitted larger European collaborative project. He concluded, “In connecting across media forms, institutions, disciplines and geographies, the research has also expanded my outlook as a film historian and provided enjoyable, productive partnerships with archives and heritage institutions, which I have no doubt will shape my teaching and research.”

More information on RSE Research Collaboration Grants (formerly Research Networks and Research Workshops):

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