The Institute for Intercultural Studies



Preserving the Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson Legacy: A Progress Report from the Library of Congress.
By Patrick Loughney, Ph.D., M/B/RS Division, Library of Congress.

The Margaret Mead collection in the Library of Congress, which includes a major body of research produced in collaboration with Gregory Bateson, is one of the most complex collections acquired by the Library of Congress in its 200 year history. Officially known as "The Papers of Margaret Mead and the South Pacific Ethnographic Archives," the main custodial and public access responsibilities for the Mead-Bateson materials are divided between the Manuscript (MSS) and Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound (M/B/RS) divisions.

From the perspective of a curator-librarian, it is a collection with an array of preservation challenges equal in complexity and interest to the intellectual pursuits that inspired Mead and Bateson to gather the vast assemblage of research materials in the first place. This collection has it all...manuscripts, maps, over 30,000 35mm still photographs, sound recordings, original art and more than 35,000 feet of black and white 16mm motion picture film. Prior to the acquisition of the Mead collection in 1982, standard LoC practice was to divide incoming collections among the various "special collection" divisions according to material formats. Maps were sent to the Geography & Map division, movie film and video to M/B/RS, etc; there those materials would be processed in isolation on a priority determined by each division.

Mead and I Made Kaler interviewing Nang Karma and I Geta, 1937.

The Mead materials forced a rethinking of that approach because the organic nature of the collection, regardless of the assembled paper, photographic, motion picture and other physical formats. One of the important and distinguished contributions by Mead and Bateson to all fields of social science research was the visionary way in which they incorporated photographic and motion picture film, along with detailed note taking, into a unified system of recording and developing their field research. Even a brief examination of the field notes, photographs and 16mm motion picture film reveals how interchangeably Mead and Bateson used pen and ink, the still 35mm camera, and the spring wound 16mm film camera throughout their typical working day. Where the motion picture sequences of individuals at work and play end, the 35mm still photographs very often pick up to continue recording specific hand gestures, facial expressions, etc. Linking Bateson's moving image and still photo forms of documentation are the extremely detailed field notes that Mead recorded, which bring a wonderful hour-by-hour, and sometimes minute-by-minute, coherence to their work.

It is fair to say that processing and preserving a collection of this size and scope must be viewed as something of a generational undertaking, even in an institution with the resources of the Library of Congress. Since it was acquired by the Library the Mead collection has been processed, i.e., inventoried, placed in archival storage containers, and cataloged, in stages by the archivists and librarians in the MSS and M/B/RS divisions. The first portion to be fully inventoried, processed and made available for public research were the paper materials. This project was coordinated by Mary Wolfskill, esteemed head of the Manuscript division reading room, and resulted in the indexing and re-housing of all the Mead-Bateson papers in 1833 document storage boxes in 1983.

The arrival of the 16mm motion picture film in the M/B/RS division in 1983 presented a double challenge. First, was the effort required to inventory and catalog the 50,000 plus feet of anthropological field research footage. To catalogers primarily accustomed to Hollywood films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, working with home movie footage featuring Karbo and Sami and set in the far away village of Batoean in Bali, the change was quite mystifying. The second challenge was to assess the physical condition and preservation needs of a film collection over 40 years old that began life in the less than desirable heat and humidity levels of equatorial Indonesia.

The first order of business for the M/B/RS catalogers was to go to the MSS division and, under the tutelage of Mary Wolfskill, conduct research into the field notes and other manuscripts to discover an appropriate organizing principle for cataloging the motion picture materials. It was this activity that led to development of close coordination between MSS and M/B/RS in de-constructing the Mead collection and preparing the long-term plan for preserving it for posterity.

Now, nearly 20 years of nearly continuous processing work on the Mead collection, it is time to assess what has been achieved and what remains to be done before this collection will be fully available to the research community. The MSS division effort to organizing the field notes and other paper records in 1982-83 was an important first step, because these materials are the Rosetta Stone to the still photographs and motion picture film held by the M/B/RS division.

Virtually all the motion picture materials, amounting to more than 35,000 feet of 16mm "reversal positive" and negative film, have been inventoried and processed by the M/B/RS division. These materials consist primarily of the Bali Field Footage (22,600 feet) shot in Bali between 1936-39 and the Papua New Guinea: Iatmul People Field Footage (ca. 11,500 feet) recorded by Mead and Bateson in 1938. Much of this material is not yet available for public viewing because the organizational and preservation challenges peculiar to this sub-set of the collection.

No doubt to keep expenses to a minimum, Mead and Bateson chose to use a type of black and white motion picture stock known as "reversal positive." Reversal positive film produces a direct positive image when developed, thereby eliminating the need, when negative film is used, for the second step in the normal laboratory developing or processing procedure to make a positive image viewing print. Of the 226 one hundred foot rolls of 16mm film that Bateson exposed in Bali, only 20 consist of negative film stock; the rest is all reversal positive. Unfortunately for the film archivists and researchers who came afterward, no protection master film elements (negatives or prints) were copied from the original reversal positive film rolls to preserve their integrity.

When Mead and Bateson returned to the U.S. and began to show their films to academic and general audiences, they cut up and edited together sequences from most of the original reversal positive motion picture rolls into films of specific subjects for use in the classroom and other venues. In doing so they altered the baseline record of the film images of life in Bali and Papua, New Guinea they had recorded and inadvertently laid the groundwork for the large scale moving picture restoration and reconstruction project now underway.

In 1999 the M/B/RS division was awarded a grant by the National Film Preservation Board, from general funds provided by the Pew Charitable Trust, to undertake the preservation and reconstruction of the Bali Field Footage. The specific goals of this project were 1) to make preservation master negatives of the 226 Bali film rolls in their present arrangement and 2) to make extra 16mm work print copies to facilitate the reconstruction of all the film rolls to their original scene order when they were produced during 1936-39. The first stage preservation work has now been completed by the Library's Motion Picture Conservation Laboratory and the next steps in the reconstruction process are ready to begin. For the first time since 1939 the conditions now exist to restore the Bali Field Footage portion of the Margaret Mead film collection.

The Library of Congress does not offer scholarships in film preservation or have the resources to hire a specialist to undertake the project outlined here. However, a great opportunity exists for a graduate student or post-doctoral intern interested in the history of anthropology to be trained and work under the supervision of Library of Congress film archivists 1) to reconstruct an important segment of the field research of one of the giants in the field and 2) to restore an unparalleled moving image record of Balinese culture and history from the pre-WWII era. The required training will be in the techniques of archival film preservation and the specific focus will be on the actual cutting and splicing of 16mm film materials, leading to the final restoration of the Bali films by the Library's Motion Picture Conservation Center.

The importance of this phase of work on the Margaret Mead Collection is that it will help the Library of Congress finish the final steps in preserving a major segment of the Mead-Bateson films. It will support a dedicated scholarship funded intern who will have the focused time and resources to complete the exacting work needed to re-edit and restore the Bali films. The benefit to the intern will, it is expected, present the opportunity for a significant doctoral or post-doctoral expository writing project. The benefit to the Library of Congress is that it will have gained the help of a focused intern who will learn the exacting archival skills necessary to working with and restoring the most important anthropological film collection of the 20th century.

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Thank you for your interest in the Institute for Intercultural Studies . We encourage you to use this website to connect to the many resources available to answer your inquiry about Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and their intellectual legacy.  However, The Institute for Intercultural Studies, founded by Margaret Mead in 1944, has closed its doors as of December 31, 2009; no further contact information is available.  For contact about permissions please see the Publishing Permission or Literary Rights section of the website.

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All rights reserved. Mead/Bateson photo ©Fred Roll.