The Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research (WCFTR), a partnership between the Communication Arts department and the Wisconsin Historical Society, has been awarded a $200,000 grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The grant will fund a project titled “Investigation of Cellulose Nitrate Motion Picture Film Chemical Decomposition & Associated Fire Risk.” This project will test cellulose nitrate film stock with the goal of creating guidelines for the handling and long-term storage of this highly unstable medium.
Nitrate film is extremely flammable, as well as very susceptible to decomposition. Though discontinued in the 1950s, much of the early 20th century’s still and moving image content is stored on nitrate film base, and thus a large portion of America’s media heritage is at risk of deterioration or complete destruction by fire. Yet, very little empirical research on nitrate film decay and flammability has been conducted. This project will undertake precisely this research in a 30-month study that will bring together the WCFTR and the Wisconsin Historical Society with the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry’s Mahanthappa Research Group. Project results will be published in a white paper and translated into improved best practice guidelines for the handling and long-term storage of nitrate film. Moreover, this project will provide archival institutions with better information for cost-benefit analyses of preserving nitrate film holdings, as well as clarify contradictory information circulating in current standards and serve as a model for future collaborations between the archival, chemical, and safety communities.
Many thanks are due to Heather Heckman, interim director of the WCFTR and the proposal’s author, for helping secure this significant grant award. “This is very important research, connecting the sciences and the humanities,” WCFTR Director Vance Kepley confirmed. “Heather’s elegant NEH proposal identified that connection and produced significant grant activity for two L&S units, Chemistry and the WCFTR.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the WCFTR, its collections comprise one of the major archives of research materials relating to film, theater, radio, and television in the United States. The Center holds more than 300 manuscript collections, 15,000 motion pictures and television shows, 2,000,000 still photographs, and several thousand sound recordings. Although it is administered by UW-Madison, WCFTR’s film, photo, and manuscript collections are cared for and housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Library-Archives Division. For more information about the WCFTR, please visit the Center’s website.