When the Office of Cinema Works opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1922, film was still a relatively young medium. It had been twenty-seven years since the Lumière Brothers premiered their films in 1895 to an audience of rapt Parisians; it was still five years until the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and seven until the first Academy Awards in 1929. "The possibilities for educational motion pictures . . . are very great," wrote Trustee George D. Pratt, shortly after the Office's establishment. "It is a new venture for art museums and I am glad to see the Metropolitan leading in this field."
As part of The Met's 150th anniversary, we have opened up the Museum's extensive moving-image archive, which comprises over 1,500 films on art-related subjects, many of which are extremely rare. Throughout its history, The Met's primary mission has been the acquisition and preservation of works of art. But early in the history of documentary film, The Met became one of the very first museums to produce its own—a radical decision at the time, and one that was spurred by a belief that the medium might be harnessed for the sake of arts education.
While the Museum has never sought to build a comprehensive historic survey of film—unlike the Museum of Modern Art, for instance—its holdings represent important forays into film production and acquisition. The Office of Cinema Works was active from 1922 through the end of 1935. Under the chairmanship of Pratt, the Board of Trustees created a Cinema Committee. The first filmed documentation of the Museum's activities was of its archaeological digs in Egypt, shot in the 1920s. Trustee Edward S. Harkness donated several movie cameras, which were operated by Harry Burton, the expedition photographer, and by Albert M. Lythgoe, head of the Department of Egyptian Art.
The Office of Cinema Works also made documentaries on various aspects of the Museum and its collections, including several films based on Harry Burton's Egyptian footage; process films about specific art-making techniques (bronze-casting, tapestry-weaving); artist profiles; and short subjects featuring objects from the Museum's collections—some twenty-one titles in all. Although they may not always qualify as great works of the cinema, these films offer a fascinating glimpse of the Museum, its activities, and how it presented itself to its public via the new medium in the early twentieth century. In keeping with the Museum's educational mission, a selection of these films—set in the Museum's galleries and illustrated with objects from the Museum's collection—was made available for rental as early as 1922 by art museums, art schools, and art societies.
Every Friday throughout 2020, The Met will release one new film on From the Vaults and on Instagram using the hashtags #FromTheVaults and #FilmFriday. They are portals into the history of art and film; many are also fascinating records of an ever-changing New York City, and The Met's role within it. We hope they will delight, surprise, and transport you.
Stay tuned this month for the following releases . . .
Metropolitan Cats (1983)
From ancient Chinese sculpture to the modern Broadway stage, cats have long been a source of inspiration for artists. This unusual film juxtaposes famous depictions of cats from the Museum's collection with their contemporary counterparts. Curators and staff muse on our feline friends' legendary stubbornness and implacable curiosity, their endless capacity for mischief, and ultimately how they have held our attention for millennia.
Sumptuously shot in richly contrasting black and white, this lyrical series of vignettes provides a window into the hidden workings of the Museum. Employees punch time clocks; janitors dust the galleries; conservators handle textiles and armor; curators puzzle over fragments of ancient statuary. It begins and ends with footage of workers entering and leaving the Museum, a moving homage to the first film ever made, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895).
Water Stone (1987)
Have you ever been curious to learn how works of art get into the galleries? Behold the trials, frustrations, and unique satisfactions of presenting art to the public. This short documentary follows the custom installation of Isamu Noguchi's beloved sculpture Water Stone (1986) in gallery 229, where it still resides, and offers a special opportunity to witness a living artist interact with staff as their work is prepared for display.
This impressionistic visual diary is a quirky love letter to the Museum featuring long-time employee and artist Ray Cusie. Cusie began his career at The Met as a security guard but later worked in exhibition design and finally as keeper of audiovisual equipment. The film follows Cusie on a dynamic tour of the building, from the roof to the conservation studios, and on beautiful, meditative strolls through the galleries.