Mobilizing the Museum: Film at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1920s

By Wasson, Haidee | Framework, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Mobilizing the Museum: Film at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1920s


Wasson, Haidee, Framework


The 1920s are commonly understood as the period during which the American film business consolidated to become the dominant international culture industry we refer to as Hollywood cinema. This is also the decade in which filmmakers, theorists, writers, and cinephiles responded to the codification of cinema as a global entertainment factory by seeking to build infrastructures supporting notably different, non-commercial forms of engagement with celluloid. This period hosted the emergence in Europe and to a lesser degree in North America of film societies, film journals, cine clubs, little theaters, amateur networks, and of course, a canon of films that pushed previous limits of film form and narrative convention; the films of Vertov, Eisenstein, Lang, Murnau, Lubitsch, Wiene, Gance, Hitchcock, Grierson, Bunuel, Dulac, and others contributed to the peak of silent film style, reconceived and forever understood from then on as art. Indeed, the 1920s were significant not only for the institutionalization of Hollywood cinema as an evening's entertainment, but also for the generative moment in which film became institutionalized as an accomplished and distinct modern art form.

While both material and intellectual factors helped to found and to foment enduring institutions of film art, far less is known about the ways in which established institutions of art exhibition such as the museum participated in the ongoing dialogue about cinema's relationship to traditional aesthetic form and practice. Most well known of the art museum's forays into film is the 1935 establishment of the Museum of Modern Art's Film Library, a moment that boldly announced film as a new and distinct modern art form.1 Yet select art museums had been gradually appropriating film for some time. Some museums exhibited films in their galleries, auditoriums, and lecture halls. Despite a predictable resistance to popular forms of cinema, even grand art museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (MMA) not only showed films regularly but also produced films, distributing them to other museums, schools, and even to homes. The museum's address to the home presents a particularly compelling development as it provides a stage in which the MMA explicitly contributed to gendered discourses of domesticity. Through its educational, publicity, marketing, and curatorial practices, the MMA entered the figurative and actual space of the American home and family, implicating the museum in the ascendant discourses that addressed women as essential promulgators of good taste, moral order, and healthy consumption. This paper focuses on the film-related activities of the venerated MMA. By using this particular museum as a case study, this paper shows that during the 1920s and 1930s, the art museum was actively institutionalizing film, making it an integrated tool in its exhibition of art objects as well as a symptomatic element of the structure through which it operated. The following examines the museum's film activities and considers their importance for thinking about the impact of cinema on institutions of art and the importance of these same institutions for thinking about the history of the silent screen beyond the main street marquee.

In September 1928 a puzzling notice appeared in Museum News, the bulletin of the American Association of Museums. First, it announced the release of a new film produced by the MMA, entitled "The Hidden Talisman," which told the story of a "French lady of the 15th century" determined to locate a magical object that promised to bring her eternal happiness. Serving as an allegory for the feminized museum-goer, the loose plot of this damsel's search also functions as a pedagogical device, designed to provide views of the medieval gardens and sedate galleries of the Cloisters, the MMA's satellite museum, which were to be relocated and generously funded by John D. Rockefeller only several years later. secondly, this same announcement claimed that "because of the demand for motion picture films for home projection," the MMA would begin reducing its films from the 35mm format to the 16mm non-flammable format.

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