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Exploring the Wolfson Moving Image Archives

For the past 30 years, the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives has collected 35,000 hours of video tape and 23 million feet of film, creating the most definitive audiovisual repository of Florida’s past that has ever existed. It’s one of the largest archives of its kind in the entire country, and one of few open for public tours.

Behind the precisely climate controlled walls of their film and video vault, row after row of archives await digitization, and it’s a race against time, as the very nature of analog film and video means those captured moments of Miami’s past have a finite life. At the Wolfson Archives, they’re giving them a second chance, even as the tapes and reels can fall apart in the middle of being played, often for the first time in decades.

Hidden moments of Florida history are finally being moved to the digital world, where they can finally be shared with everybody. “The idea was to take the archives, all of these fantastic analog assets that we have here, the film, the video tape, and give it new life — help it to break out of these walls,” explained Director Rene Ramos. “It’s really the only way to take the material we have and exhibit it the way a traditional museum would hang art on the walls. The next step to getting things out and putting them into people’s lives is to digitize it.”

And with the focus on digitization, Ramos, who doesn’t come from a museum background, has his work cut out for him. Ramos’ experience instead lies in new media and large scale digitization and image projects, and preserving and transferring the Wolfson Archive’s fragile film into the digital world is definitely a large scale project, with many challenges.

For much of its life, the Wolfson Archives lived in the basement of the Miami-Dade Public Library. Recognized as the official repository of audiovisual materials by the State of Florida, the Wolfson Archives were founded in memory of Louis Wolfson II, part of the same family who helped launch The Wolfsonian-FIU. In 1925, the family launched Wometco, one of the earliest cinema chains in Miami, and in 1949, founded WTVJ, the very first TV station in Florida. In fact, the first donations to the collection came from those first early newscasts, but it has grown to include all sorts of video from across the state, from home movies to locally shot films.

 

Kevin Wynn, public programs coordinator, became the very first full-time employee of the Wolfson Archives in 1988. He left to work for Miami-Dade TV, hosting a show for about 10 years, before coming back home to the Archives. Working at the Archives back when it was in the basement proved exceptionally problematic. “That was a fun place not to have an archive, because there was no control over humidity, control over temperature was nominal, and everybody worked in the same room where everything was stored.”

“We regularly had birds in there, even mice,” Ramos added. As for the fact that so much of the film archive has survived to this day, “Miracle is a good word for it.”

Now the Wolfson Archives are secure in their new home at the Wolfson Campus, with the full IT infrastructure of Miami-Dade College to support preserving the video digitally, as well as the resources to share the Archives with the world.

As part of that effort, the Wolfson Archives have hosted and participated in countless film festivals showcasing historic footage, and they make their extensive archives available to filmmakers around the world. “We have footage in all kinds of productions,” Ramos said. “I’d say it numbers in the thousands. We charge a license fee, but we do it with an eye toward the ability to pay. If a small indie is interested in using our footage, we’re going to treat them a bit differently than we would treat HBO. The idea is really to try to get this into people’s hands. You can look at it, you can even do some work with it for free.”

Part of the reason to preserve the archives digitally, beyond the fact that with every year the physical film decays, is to look ahead towards ways of using these videos in ways can’t even be anticipated yet. And they’re still looking to grow the Archives, accepting submissions from across Florida in all formats, from VHS tapes to Super 8 film. If accepted into the collection, donors get a complete set of digital versions of those previously lost moments in time, and they’re shared online for everybody else to enjoy as well.

“For years and years, for centuries, historical materials were locked away,” Wynn said. “But in this case you can have it on your desktop and you can access the past right in front of you, whenever you want. You can just start watching, and you’ll find something amazing. In a way, it’s like the greatest resource for a choose your own adventure that you could ever come up with. Only it’s other people’s real adventures, through history.”