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MoMA Keeps Film Stills Archive Out of Reach

MoMA Keeps Film Stills Archive Out of Reach

In 2002, I wrote an article for the old Village Voice, “Freeze Frame,” about how the Museum of Modern Art had shut down its world-renowned Film Stills Archive and let go two longtime staffers, Mary Corliss and Terry Geesken (possibily in retaliation for their pro-union activities). The museum blamed the closure on its redevelopment project, saying they would “aim to restore access” to the collection “as the building project evolves.” But with the newly renovated museum up-and-running since 2004, the Archive remains in cold storage. Last week, I received an email from Mary Corliss with an update.

“This week MoMA unveiled its 63,000 sq. ft. Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building. Surprise, surprise: the Film Stills Archive is not a part of it. There are no plans I know of to set aside, in any of its spaces, the 2500 sq. ft that the Archive requires–not in the renovated Museum, nor the new education center, nor the Museum’s building in Queens,” she writes.

“It is nearly five years since MoMA made the collection inaccessible to scholars, historians, authors and journalists. Those 4 million-plus stills, documenting the visual history of world cinema, continue to remain in cold storage in Pennsylvania, untended and unused. Unused, I might add, except by MoMA curator Steven Higgins, who with great hubris embroidered his scant text with images from the Stills Archive in ‘Still Moving,’ a book that highlights the Museum’s Film and Media collections and resources. (Resource for whom, one might ask?) An exhibition of stills used in that publication are also on display at Hermes in New York.”

Corliss and Geesken, who took a low severence in order to have recall rights to their jobs of 34 and 18 years, remain unemployed by the museum. In September, Corliss received a final ruling in the fight they took to the National Labor Relations Board: the Republican-lead panel voted against their argument and reversed any points voted in their favor by the the judge in the NLRB trial.

While the ruling marks the end of any legal recourse available to Corliss or Geesken, film critics and scholars should keep up the fight to regain access to the Stills Archive—whose special holdings include the D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès collections.

As Howard Mandelbaum, president of Photofest, now one of the city’s few alternatives for classic film stills, told me in 2002. “Photos are meant for circulation. MOMA has a superb collection, especially in terms of foreign and early moviemaking. It is crucial that the public be allowed visitation rights.”

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