As we mentioned back in December, the WCS Archives was recently awarded a major grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to process several important collections. We’ve now started in on processing the collections, which in addition to the collections from Fairfield Osborn, Lee S. Crandall, and others that we mentioned in our initial announcement, also include records from James A. Oliver, New York Zoological Society press releases spanning most of the 20th Century, and several hundred illustrations from the Department of Tropical Research.
In order to complete the work, the Archives has brought on a full-time project archivist, Emma Curtis, to do the bulk of the processing. Each month Emma will be sharing her progress and latest discoveries in a post here on Wild Things. We’re as thrilled to have her with us as we are to be working on the grant!
These first few weeks have brought a few notable insights of New York Zoological Society’s rich history as progress begins to ramp up on tackling the thirteen previously unprocessed and under-processed collections selected from WCS Archives holdings for this project.
In beginning to appraise a collection of records from the NYZS Department of Education produced during the 1940s-1980s, NYZS’s important role in producing and presenting motion picture films during the 20th century became apparent. Combing though the surviving records such as film scripts, shot lists, planning and production notes, correspondence, memos, inventory lists and indexes, titles like “From the Pampas to Patagonia,” “The Expedition to Puffin Island,” “Around the Year in the Zoo” and “Herbert and His Friends” emerged to illustrate the range of topics that NYZS invested in to expand their educational role. There are films reporting on research expeditions, studies in animal behaviour, features on facilities the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium, and even films geared towards inspiring and educating the next generation of young zoologists, naturalists, and conservationists.
Films were previewed at NYZS’s Annual General Meetings to Society members before often finding additional audiences elsewhere. NYZS audio-visual media services, which at one point was coordinated by the Publications and Photography department, facilitated the use of NYZS motion picture films in venues such as New York City classrooms, professional associations, zoological parks across the country and other venues.
“The Locomotion of Snakes,” for example, was produced by staff photographer Sam Dunton in 1952 with then Curator of Reptiles, Dr. James A. Oliver. It presented on the science of animal behaviour and featured the puff adder in what was intended to the be first in a series of educational films on living reptiles, according to the 1952 report from the Department.
Insights into NYZS’s films like “The Locomotion of Snakes” can be seen through the surviving versions of the film’s scripts, as they document both the production and information content of the films, and also through their associated records, which provide evidence of early collection management activities for these valuable media assets for the Society. Note the footage description and narration (above) and corresponding photograph (below) illustrating the lengths to which staff photographer Sam Dunton was willing to go to document and dispel the myths of the mechanics of motion and movement of the large venomous snake.
NYZS Annual Reports within the year of film production and in the following year of the annual general meeting presentation also provide further background into the Society’s approach to making and coordinating film footage. For example, the 1952 NYZS Annual Report report from Department of Reptiles notes the type of facilities and motion picture technology used at the time of filming “Locomotion”:
“Through the generosity of Dr. James S. Watson, Jr., the wonderful facilities of the Department of Radiology at the University of Rochester Medical School were made available for the analysis of one type of snake locomotion. Dr. Oliver and Mr. Dunton journeyed to Rochester to get the first X-ray motion pictures ever made of a snake performing the rectilinear or caterpillar type of locomotion. Dr. Watson and Mr. Sydney Weinberg recorded the details of this type of locomotion on their giant fluorine graphic camera and provided us with the X-ray footage used in our completed film on locomotion.” (NYZS 1952 Annual Report, page 22)
The film was presented at the 57th Annual General Meeting at Hunter College in January 1953, along with other films NYZS produced that year to much fanfare. The Department of Reptiles reported on the success of the film including the audience reception at its premier, additional screenings to professional groups like the American Society for Ichthyologists and Herpetologists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the film’s subsequent sale and distribution via McGraw-Hill that would bring the film to future audiences. Work on the second film in the series began that year in earnest.
The processing project runs from June 2016 to June 2017. I look forward to sharing project news and discoveries from the collections over the next year.
This post was submitted by WCS’s NHPRC Project Archivist, Emma Curtis, who joined the WCS Archives in July 2016.