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Big Sky Chronicles: Preserving Montana’s film archives

HELENA – The archives of the Montana Historical Society are home to many important documents and photographs that tell the state’s story.  Among the shelves, however, is a lesser known collection that holds some of the most important documentation of life in Montana: the film archives.

Film archivist Kelly Burton said there are 114 collections in the Montana Historical Society film archives, made up of more than 6,700 pieces in 24 different formats.  He’s working to protect them.

“This is a home movie from Bill Clark, who was William Clark’s grandson, the copper magnate,” he explained of a recent film he uncovered.  “This was home movie footage he did on a camping trip in 1931 outside of Flathead Lake, so really fascinating.  We actually have a book that corresponds with this it’s actually his memoir from his trip.”

From home movies of the Daly family taken in 1917, to the state constitutional convention of 1972, and even a look at a cattle ranch in the 1930’s, many aspects of Montana life and history are captured on film.

“Our collection in general covers all of the 20th century and into the 21st century,” said Research Center Manager Molly Kruckenberg.  “We collect and have in our collection everything from early films of Yellowstone National Park to films from the aviation commission of state government.”

As Burton explained, “Preserving films is rehousing them, doing things like taking the leader off and putting on new leader, filling out film preservation documents, just making a record of the specific content of the films and condition of the films.”

Burton’s work will help ensure the films are protected and stored safely while being cataloged for future access.  Some will be digitized, as well.

Kruckenberg said film adds another layer to the storytelling process.

“From what seems mundane to what everybody thinks of as important so films add another aspect to that history, a more visual aspect, we can see what was actually happening in that time,” said Kruckenberg.

She added that you never know if you have Montana history in your own basement or attic and submissions are always welcome.

Funding for the preservation work came from grants through the Greater Montana Foundation and Montana Broadcasters Association.