History in Motion

The Archives now has a searchable moving image database, which holds records of all the film and video materials housed in the lower level of Lehman Hall, Room 23.  The moving image collection contains a wide variety of items related to Barnard College, including documentaries chronicling the history and development of the institution, footage of events held on campus, films shot and produced by alumnae, groundbreaking instructional sports shorts, and commercial features profiling famous figures associated with the College.

The film portion of the Barnard College moving image collection includes more than 6,000 feet of unique and compelling material dating from the mid-1920s through the 1980s, affording the viewer a rare glimpse of an era when students played Quoits on the roof of Barnard Hall, dashed outside to attend classes held in the Jungle, spent weekends at Camp, and everyone had tried archery at least once (or so it seems).

The Greek Games are well-represented, with astonishing images of hoop rolling, chariot races, hurdles, and dances from ’27, ’32, ’38, ’44, ’49, ’53, and ’66.  Particularly striking is the footage from the 1927 Greek Games, which includes a magnificent (and surprising) early amateur use of slow motion photography:

It’s important to note that many of these films were shot in the primitive days of amateur cinema: Kodak introduced 16mm stock—used most often for what we now call “home movies”–in 1923; the Archives contains footage from around 1925.  Additionally, the bulk of the documentary pictures are from the mid-1930s, when the technology itself was much less new, but both cameras and rolls of film were still considered unattainable luxury items for most Depression-era Americans.  We are lucky these films even exist in the first place, let alone today.

The collection is also significant because of the extraordinary number of Barnard women involved in the production of these films, not just on camera, but behind the camera as well, in a time when the number of professional women filmmakers (both in Hollywood and worldwide) could literally be counted on one hand.  The provenance of many of these films is unknown, but documentation leads us to believe that at least five Barnard alumnae and staff helmed some of these fascinating movies, including two trustees.

Edith Mulhall Achilles ’14 (yes, that’d be 1914, for all you members of the incoming class of 2014) was deeply involved in Barnard affairs for her entire life, and shot a great deal of footage on campus, perhaps as early as the 1920s, but most definitely during her tenure as trustee between 1933 and 1937.  In 1935 she combined several movies she had taken over the past year with a few shot by Agnes Wayman, Head of Physical Education, which the Class of 1925 chose to show at their 10-year reunion.  ’25 actually broke with precedent by choosing to run the pictures in lieu of the standard “formal program,” which the decennial class traditionally hosts during Reunion.  This caused little uproar from the other alumnae, however, as “[g]eneral observation indicated that these innovations were all extremely satisfactory” and “the class of 1925 had been most wise in the selection of their entertainment for the evening.”[1] The completed documentary film was also copied and sent to many alumnae clubs around the country, thus bringing a little piece of Barnard to former students no matter where they lived.

The White family made two documentaries in 1961 and 1962, which center on Barnard’s academic advantages and the merits that derive from its location in New York City.  Marian Churchill White ’29, best known for penning the frequently-cited A History of Barnard College in 1954 and who served as Alumnae Club President as well as holding two terms as a trustee beginning in 1953, directed the films.  She had help from her two daughters, Heritage (Cherry) White Carnell ’59, who co-wrote and –edited the films, and Penny White ’62, who starred in the first one when she was a senior here at Barnard.  The second film, like Achilles’ documentary, was sent to alumnae clubs nationwide and was also slated to “presage a professional ‘short’ under the direction of noted movie-maker Spyros Skourous [then-president of 20th Century Fox],”[2] intended to publicize Barnard’s 75th anniversary.  However, there is no evidence that this professional film was ever made or released commercially.

Moving images create a visual link to the past that can be directly compared to what we see—or often don’t see—today, providing a unique vantage point that supplements and helps contextualize the more conventional paper records and manuscript collections that are usually the focus of most college archives.  These movies allow us to put faces and expressions to the names on our libraries and residence halls, or to follow the peregrinations of the Greek Games statue, whose determined face never changes, though her location often does.  In some instances they are the only extant evidence of these faces and buildings at all.

Written by Ashley Swinnerton, Archives Intern, NYU MIAP ’11


[1] “On and Off the Campus.”  Barnard College Alumnae Monthly, June 1935, p 3.

[2] “Film About Barnard Highlights Dorm, NY.”  Barnard Bulletin, 30 April 1962, p 2.

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