Written by Fani Gargova, Byzantine Research Associate, and Rona Razon, Archivist
It was a year ago that we sent an abstract for the panel “Moving Image as a Means of Documenting and Promoting Byzantine and Medieval Culture” for the 49th Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI. The idea arose from our initiative to make the Byzantine Institute films available online on Vimeo and subsequently creating an online exhibit A Truthful Record: The Byzantine Institute Films that highlights their creation and use. We proposed the panel discussion with the aim to fill in some gaps about the motivations behind documenting restoration activities through film. We also hoped to discover comparable films and thus to engage in a discussion about the use of moving images by conservators, archaeologists, and art historians alike.
After receiving the acceptance letter from the conference committee, we invited Elizabeth Bolman and Helen Evans to join the panel, as experts in fieldwork documentation of the Red Monastery in Egypt. Additionally, Nancy Wu from the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art responded to our call for papers and proposed to present a film that documents the dismantling of the Fuentidueña Apse in Spain. ICFA Archivist Rona Razon also joined the panel in order to provide context to Thomas Whittemore’s motivations and aims in using moving images to document the Byzantine Institute’s cultural preservation projects in Egypt and Turkey.
From the speakers, we were able to trace the relationship between medieval art and the moving image from the early 1930s to today, thus exploring changes in the medium and its impact on documentation practice and vice versa. The speakers are listed below in the same order that they presented during the panel on May 10, 2014.
The abstracts for the panel can be accessed here: Panel Abstracts Kalamazoo 2014.
Rona Razon presented on the Byzantine Institute films, stored and preserved in ICFA. Her talk focused on Thomas Whittemore, founder and director of the Byzantine Institute, as the center of interest by demonstrating how the use of moving images in the documentation and promotion of the Institute’s work reflected Whittemore’s personality and interests. She showed how Whittemore’s interests shifted from English, theater, and philanthropy to archaeology, art history, and the preservation of Byzantine monuments. A similar change in perspective is reflected in the films produced by the Byzantine Institute. The early 1930 film of the Red Sea Monasteries in Egypt focuses on the people inhabiting the monasteries and their everyday activities from an ethnological perspective. The footage also contextualizes the monastery and its inhabitants within their natural setting, a stark desert landscape. On the other hand, the films of Hagia Sophia created by the photographer Pierre Iskender beginning in 1936 are intimate accounts of the splendid mosaics. They concentrate on technical details of the conservation process and rarely give a sense of the space. The primary focus is on the innovation in art conservation.
Museum Educator Nancy Wu showed rare footage of the dismantling of the Fuentidueña apse in 1957 from its original location in Castilla y León in Spain, before it was reconstructed at the Cloisters in New York City. Using correspondence between Curator Carmen Gómez-Moreno with the Director of the Cloisters, James Rorimer, she showed that the use of moving images was welcomed as an innovative way of capturing the work, as seen in this clip. Wu emphasized the conscious employment of film to capture what “frozen” images cannot: “The beauty of the changing landscape and in the different seasons, and the hard work involved in displacing blocks of stone and entire stone sculptures, in sculpting replacement pieces, and creating individual crates for every single piece of the dismantled building.“
On behalf of Helen Evans (Curator of Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), Elizabeth Bolman, Associate Professor at Temple University, presented brief background remarks on the Red Monastery and its importance for Coptic and Byzantine art, while stressing how little the public knew of this monument until recently. This film was part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s impressive “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition” exhibit in 2012. Statistics have shown that attendees visited the exhibit several times just so they could watch the film multiple times. Clearly, the use of moving images to document restoration activities is a powerful method of promoting and supporting the importance of cultural heritage preservation.
Elizabeth Bolman also described the process of creating and editing this film. She pointed out the expenses of maintaining and continuing the project, and the difficulty of funding the endeavor. Nevertheless, the great potential of film to provide a dynamic way of understanding the monuments and making them more accessible motivated Bolman to assemble the necessary funds to purchase a professional high-definition camera. This camera was used to document the cleaning process at the Red Monastery, yielding impressive results. In her presentation, Bolman showed clips of the restoration process and focused on the step-by-step process of cleaning a granite column and the wall paintings in the Red Monastery. Furthermore, Bolman reminded us of how much clearer these conservation practices are illustrated in moving form, rather than in still photography. She also stressed the need to raise awareness for the monuments that we are studying and restoring. Through film documentation, she sees educational possibilities that could inspire the next generation of scholars and conservators.
After the presentations, the speakers engaged in a lively discussion with the audience to clarify and/or discuss certain issues raised by the three sets of films. For instance, the conservation practices documented in the Byzantine Institute films from the 1930s and 1940s and in the Red Monastery film made in 2010 have remained surprisingly similar. Some practical techniques such as covering damaged areas on the walls or darkening newly applied white plaster with dust, vinyl, or watercolor have remained the same through the years.
From the Byzantine Institute fieldworkers’ point of view, the “vivid white [plaster] does not help to show ‘off’ the mosaic in photographs [,] when one looks at it,” and so they covered it with dust and vinyl.
For Bolman’s team, they covered the damaged fresco areas with watercolor so that viewers would not be distracted by the huge gap on the wall.
Not surprisingly, the Fuentindueña film caused great excitement among the attendees. Many people asked questions about the preservation issues raised by the new climate in New York, as well as the general practice of displacing and reassembling standing buildings.
Additionally, Bolman was commended for filming the conservation processes employed by her team at the Red Monastery, thus making their technical practices visible to novices and the general public. Bolman and other discussion participants also pointed out that documentation, whether through still photographs or moving images, can sometimes be intrusive to conservators and disrupt the restoration process. Bolman’s crew often felt self-conscious towards the camera as they carefully carried out their tasks.
During the discussion, it also became clear that many conservators are cautious about showing how they clean and preserve a monument or an object, since the practice and science of conservation evolves so quickly. Demonstrating techniques and methods that may later be critiqued can be risky. However, these concerns must be weighed against the value of the documentation.
In conclusion, what we learned from this panel discussion is that the moving images preserved in ICFA are actually rather exceptional! Similar examples do exist, though they are scattered in many archives and not easily findable. We are sure that as more film archives make their collections available online, more comparable films will be “found.” For our part, ICFA has not only described our films, but we’ve also posted them to Vimeo where they may be viewed in their entirety. While filming the restoration process can interrupt the work itself, the medium of the moving image has been proven to be most effective in the documentation and promotion of cultural preservation — from the 1930s, through the 1950s, and until today.
Session photographs were taken by Galina Fingarova, currently a Senior Fellow at Koç University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations.