Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema

Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema

Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema

Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema


Haidee Wasson provides a rich cultural history of cinema's transformation from a passing amusement to an enduring art form by mapping the creation of the Film Library of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, established in 1935. The first North American film archive and museum, the film library pioneered an expansive moving image network, comprising popular, abstract, animated, American, Canadian, and European films. More than a repository, MoMA circulated these films nationally and internationally, connecting the modern art museum to universities, libraries, women's clubs, unions, archives, and department stores. Under the aegis of the museum, cinema also changed. Like books, paintings, and photographs, films became discrete objects, integral to thinking about art, history, and the politics of modern life.


In 1935 the fledgling Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, announced the formation of the Film Library, a department tasked with saving and exhibiting films that were in danger of being forever lost to public view. At this point in American history, the life cycle of a typical film was extremely brief; the bulk of commercial features disappeared quickly from movie screens, never to appear again. Viewing art films and what we today call movie classics was still a highly unusual activity, confined to major urban centers and only a handful of theaters. As such, there was widespread skepticism about the pairing of such a popular and spectacular amusement with the comparatively elite and sacral space of the museum, striking many as novel and, at times, odd. Why see old films? What was a film museum? What did the ephemeral and entertaining value of film have to do with enduring and edifying proclamations of art?

A local New York newspaper described MoMA’s film venture:

At the film library Salon at the Museum of Modern Art the subjects re
ceive a lengthy foreword as a sort of reminder (or warning) of the type
of film its product represents and an “analysis” of its meaning to world
culture in general. But the films are just as jaundiced, just as slapstick,
just as antediluvian as those in the nickelodeon…. A visit to the sub
terranean chamber of the museum is rewarding … if not for the histo
rical implications, then certainly for the opportunity of seeing Jimmy
Cagney in a cake-eater’s suit and Joan Blondell in a “fish-bowl” hat.

Such reports, typical at the time, indicate that main-street movies continued to be seen as dramatically different from museum art; clear dissonance between their content, modes of display, and manners of looking persisted. Marble sculptures of gun-toting villains or oil portraits of gravity-defying heroines were—by all official art histories—nonexistent. Paintings were . . .

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