Film Heritage at the Curb
What kinds of fan-related objects do archives collect, and how do these film and star-related commodities qualify as heritage? These two questions were at the center of the seminar “Film and Material Culture,” which I taught in the PhD program “Configurations of Film” at Goethe University in spring 2022. With the program’s doctoral students, I visited three collections on film and fan-related objects, including collectible albums, comic books, scrapbooks, promotional materials, and merchandise. At first glance, the collections told a story that begins with the passion and work of amateur collectors and ends with the official appraisal and acquisition by established heritage institutions. In some cases, we learned, fan collectors had carefully prepared, on their own initiative, the transition of their private collections to public archives. In other cases, heirs had reached out to curators and offered them complete collections or single objects that had either been known to be valued by the deceased person or had been found in basements and attics when their home was emptied. In both instances, fan collectors and the public showed an evident awareness of the value of film-related materials as well as the work official institutions perform in preserving and exhibiting them.
Yet, what struck me most were not the examples of successful transitions from private collection to public archives. An anecdote shared with me by a curator from the Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum (hereafter DFF) led my interest in another direction. Several years ago, a person contacted this curator to ask if the DFF would be interested in their recently deceased partner’s collection of merchandise, tie-ins, promotional materials, and other film and star-related ephemera. After an initial inspection, the curator agreed to pick up part of the collection. However, due to a scheduling conflict, the appointment had to be postponed. But as it turned out, rescheduling was not an option for the bereaved spouse, who packed the items into boxes and placed them on the curb for passersby or garbage services. Apparently, the collection triggered unwelcome memories of their partner, and dealing with their grief in this moment of distress was prioritized over organizing the collection’s transition into an archive; thus, the collection never ended up on the DFF’s shelves. This anecdote relativized stories of successful transitions from private collections into official archives. It is a reminder that film-related material culture is lost daily, without even documentation of discarded collections, fans’ curatorial practices and principles of appraisal, or the rationales of potential donors.
Scholarship on the intersection of fandom and material culture has demonstrated the importance of collecting as part of the building of fan identity (Geraghty 2014; Jenkins 2020). In many instances, fan collectors also share knowledge about their collections in their own exhibitions or media productions (Keidl and Waysdorf 2022). And in some cases, fans collaborate with official heritage institutions on temporary or permanent exhibition projects (Hoebink, Reijnders, and Waysdorf 2014). Throughout such collaborations, official heritage institutions assess the value that a collection has for their archives and its potential users. At the end of this archival appraisal, the specificity of a particular past (the meanings and values given to a collection by the fan collector) is superseded by a more generic sense of the past (the history of film and film fandom). Consequently, the material traces of a fan collection may survive, but the personal memories and the expert knowledge of the fan are habitually lost. The anecdote about the discarded collection, however, presents a different mode of assessment. Here, a fan does not take the initiative to organize the divestment of their collection. Rather, the burden falls to individuals who become custodians of a fan collection by chance and without previous interest or involvement in the fandom.
For these “accidental fan archivists,” the personal relationship to the deceased influences how they handle the inherited collection more than any consideration of the contexts and subtexts of fandom and film heritage. Material culture is entwined with their experience of loss, and they often divest of the objects so that a “deceased individual may be gradually reduced to the evocation of one or two key objects [which may lead] to the simplification of their memorialization” (Miller and Parrott 2009, 506). But whereas archival acquisition and personal divestment share the tendency to transform the specific into the generic, the former usually results in the expansion of a collection while the latter commonly leads to the reduction of previously owned possessions. This connection between death, memory, and material culture affords insights into the spouse’s motivation to contact but not wait for the DFF. Fandom might have been an important identity marker for the departed spouse, yet it did not define the relationship between the spouses. Other mementoes representing friendship, romance, parenthood, occupation, and other forms of leisure were perhaps better suited to remember the deceased. Accordingly, the widowed spouse was aware that the fan’s collection of merchandise could be of interest to the DFF, but was not very motivated to preserve it.
I tell this anecdote not to point fingers at those who must make decisions of what to keep and what to give away in moments of immense distress. Yet it is hard to imagine that the prominent estates of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Maximilian Schell, Volker Schlöndorff, or Curd Jürgens (all housed at the DFF) would have been disposed of so easily and without any outcry. Their destruction would be declared an irreparable loss for film history. What qualifies the one example as a tragedy and the other as an unfortunate series of events is not the quality of stories one could tell about advertising and merchandising articles. In recent years, research on material culture has provided profound insights into the production, promotion, exhibition, crossmedial and transmedial expansion, reception, and preservation of film and cinema culture (Affuso and Scott 2023; Askari 2022; Hastie 2007; Santo 2015; Trope 2011). Rather, it is the quantity of these objects encountered in everyday life that gives a false idea of permanence. The “rhetoric of the original” (Hediger 2005) is an important cornerstone in the conception of film heritage, putting emphasis on fragile and “auratic” things like celluloid or original production materials such as costumes, concept arts, and props. In turn, discussions on products such as merchandise are habitually defined by a “rhetoric of the generic, mass-produced, cheap and disposable,” as these things fall into the category of what Wendy A. Woloson calls “crap”: objects that are “paradoxical, contradictory, insincere, unnecessary, and fundamentally false” (2020, 8). Indeed, the ubiquity of “stuff” like merchandise puts it in danger of “fading from view, and becoming naturalized, taken for granted” (Miller 2010, 105). It is because of this perception of merchandise as marginal yet ever-present that fan collections—or collections of “thrown aways not thrown away” (Desjardins 2006, 40)—are in danger of being eventually thrown away for good.
Ideas like “crap” and “heritage,” however, are culturally, socially, and politically determined and relative categories. As such, an anecdote about one discarded fan collection should not be understood as a call for the comprehensive transformation of crap into heritage. The main concern is how such constructs determine what can be studied and known about the history of fandom and film’s material culture. According to Caetlin Benson-Allott, “conditions of availability and unavailability structure scholars’, critics’, and fans’ relation to film history” (2021, 77). While she focuses on the loss of films because of industrial logics and the deterioration of prints and videos, her argument could also be extended to the availability and unavailability of those objects that usually form the foundation of fan collections: merchandise, promotional materials, and other ephemera. Hence, while film scholars increasingly call on their peers to look “behind,” “past,” or “around” the screen (Benson-Allott 2021; Geraghty 2014; Gray 2010; Rehak 2014), the material culture that exists outside the screen and that structures how fans as well as general audiences think about film is discarded and lost daily.
Of course, archives can tell many successful stories about acquiring objects from collectors or their heirs. Still, this is not reason enough to be satisfied with what can already be found in film archives, as one can only engage with those objects that have been preserved and those collectors who have shared their stories. What remains unknown are the stories we do not have the chance to hear. The anecdote of the discarded collection is a reminder of those stories we cannot tell because they found their premature conclusion at a curb—not because the objects are crap, but because there is the assumption that somehow, somewhere, someone else will preserve this stuff.
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