Rare footage of Labour Day, Melbourne, 1939

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by Lorenzo Iozzi
Publish date
11 May 2016
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Museum Victoria has some 2000 motion pictures shot and stored on film in its Humanities collections. These include early footage of Australian Aboriginal ceremonies taken by Baldwin Spencer, the museum's second director, in Central Australia in 1901; important collections acquired from companies such as HV McKay Sunshine Harvester, International Harvester and Kodak Australia, and home movies and informal tourist documentaries shot by enthusiastic amateur filmmakers.

A section of Museum Victoria's cold storage unit A section of Museum Victoria's cold storage unit
Source: Museum Victoria

Preserving this filmed material calls for specialised storage and handling procedures. The films are kept in a cold storage unit, in order to ensure their survival for as long as possible. We test their acidity levels, to detect any chemical reaction between the emulsion and the film base which could warp the films and destroy their images. Furthermore, each film is hand-wound from its original metal reel, which is prone to corrosion, onto a new polypropylene film core, which relaxes any tension in the film. The film is then rehoused in an archival polypropylene canister, which is barcoded for ease of storage location tracking, rather than kept in its original metal canister.

One of the recently rehoused 16mm films One of the recently rehoused 16mm films
Source: Museum Victoria

Protected in cold storage, the films are preserved well but remain inaccessible, rendering their historical content effectively non-existent. Happily though, over the past four years the museum has begun the challenging and expensive task of digitising some of these films in order to make them available to researchers and the general public alike. Ours is often the only copy of a given film in existence, so great care is taken to ensure that it's not damaged during the digitisation process. However, large digital files require their own special attention, to ensure that data is not corrupted, so we take care to ensure all digital copies are securely stored and properly documented.

Viewing motion film on the Steenbeck editing machine Viewing motion film on the Steenbeck editing machine
Source: Museum Victoria

There have been some unexpected discoveries as we unlock these films' images and historical content.

The film Eight Hour Day Procession, Spring Street, Melbourne, 21 March 1939, was one such revelation. It documents a Labour Day March, which had its origins in Melbourne back in 1856 to celebrate the Eight Hour Day. The march of 1939 is of particular importance: we are on the brink of World War II, and Melbourne has barely had a chance to recover from the Great Depression. The mood in the streets is beautifully captured in this amazing amateur film. Peace, equality, fairness, and dignity for the worker are the messages being paraded. To evaluate just how significant a film like this is, we need only view it and ask: what would we have lost of our history, had this film not survived?

Not only has the film ended up in the museum’s care, but so too has at least one of the Trade Union banners which took part in the procession. The Australian Tramway Employees Association banner is a little difficult to make out, as it passes through shadow in the instant it moves past the camera, but it's captured nonetheless.

Banner - Australian Tramway Employees Association, Victorian Branch, 1916 Banner for the Australian Tramway Employees Association, Victorian Branch, 1916
Source: Museum Victoria

The life of this film only really begins now, as historians, researchers and the public can begin to enjoy it and relate to it in a myriad of ways.

The film can be viewed on the Museum Victoria Collections website.

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