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June 20, 2018

Professor oversees massive digitization project of rare film collection

Once threatened by chemical decay and decomposition, an important and rare film collection from the early years of cinema is now available to the public online thanks to a massive preservation and digitization project overseen by Joshua Yumibe, director of the Film Studies Program and associate professor in Michigan State University’s Department of English.

The collection consists of 23,491 original 35-millimeter nitrate film clippings, usually two to three frames each, dating mostly from 1897 to 1915. It is the collection of Italian film historian Davide Turconi, who acquired the extensive collection from the films amassed by Josef-Alexis Joye, a Jesuit priest from Basel, Switzerland, at the beginning of the 20th century. Forty years after Joye’s death in 1919, Turconi discovered the collection, which Joye gathered from secondhand markets to use in his educational programs.

The George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, acquired the Turconi Collection in the 1990s. In 2000, the massive digitization project began.

Yumibe took over management of the digitization project in 2003 while still a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. The collection served as one of the key studies for Yumibe’s research into early color cinema. In 2011, after 12 years, the Turconi Collection Database was completed.

The Turconi Collection Database is the largest of its kind currently available and is a primary source for the study of early cinema and color technology. It is available for free online with the financial support of the George Eastman Museum, the Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and the Cineteca del Friuli. 

“Early film was visually inventive, marked by the excitement of discovering a new medium,” Yumibe said. “I often teach material in my classes related to silent and early cinema, and in doing so I draw extensively from the collection to illustrate this history, as do other scholars.”

For the first time, the public can see this rare collection in person, which is now on display at the George Eastman Museum thanks to the efforts of Yumibe, who curated the Dreaming in Color: The Davide Turconi Collection of Early Cinema exhibit, and the MSU Foundation, a key sponsor, which helped with funding through a Humanities and Arts Research Program grant.

“The exhibition showcases both the stunning beauty as well as historical significance of the Turconi Collection, specifically by focusing on the use of color in these early films,” Yumibe said.

As curator, Yumibe worked in collaboration with the staff at the George Eastman Museum. He selected approximately 600 of the 23,491 archival frames to be displayed, arranged those images and put together the exhibition texts.

The exhibit runs through Sunday. Yumibe and the George Eastman Museum plan to bring the show to other venues.

By: Kimberly Popiolek