This story could not be more Canadian.
Around 1928, more than 1,000 reels from silent films made in the early 20th century were placed inside a Dawson City swimming pool, and kept frozen in time under a hockey rink, built on top. The hockey rink was later abandoned, and the area was not looked at again until 1978 and 1979, when the site was excavated. Underneath the rink sat films and newsreels made of a highly volatile substance called cellulose nitrate, but intact, perfectly preserved under the ice.
A recent Vanity Fair magazine article calls it the “most astonishing and unexpected bonanzas in cinematic history.” The article mentions that some of the richest finds in the collection are the newsreels, including shots from the 1919 World Series game between the Yankees and the Red Sox, infamously known as the “black sox game,” amid speculation that the game was fixed.
The Dawson City Museum (pictured to the right)—headed by an iSchool graduate—played a role in excavating and storing the more than 522 usable reels of silent film and news reports. The finds were transported to the National Film Archive, then moved to the Library Archives Canada and the Library of Congress, where they are now housed. The City Museum also had a part working with filmmaker, Bill Morrison, on research and photo sourcing for his documentary on the find.
Dawson City is located far north in the Yukon, known as the heart of the Klondike gold rush. There, the Museum struck a different kind of gold, now part of Morrison’s documentary, “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” which recently screened at the Venice, New York, and London Film Festivals.
With little more than 1,500 residents, Dawson City is not the place where you would think to find an invaluable resource of early 20th century films. However, the Vanity Fair article says that sometimes, the best finds are the ones most hidden. The author of the article says, “our most significant find at the museum, though, was Alex Somerville.”
Alex is an iSchool Master of Museum Studies alumnus (2015), and since April 2015, the Executive Director of the Dawson City Museum in Dawson City, Yukon. “I found that coming into an executive role as a museum manager, after graduation, which was new for me at the Dawson City Museum, Dr. Matt Brower’s Ethics Leadership and Management course has proven valuable,” Alex shares.
During his time at the iSchool, Somerville won the ROM Visitor Engagement Award, given to a museum student or group who has made important contributions to visitor engagement at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). He also won the Ukrainian Heritage Award in his second year, and began his MMSt program as a research assistant to Professor Cara Kmpotich. Recently Dr. Krmpotich and Somerville co-authored “Affective Presence: The Metonymical Catalogue,” published this September in Museum Anthropology.
Somerville explains the history of Dawson City as “the end of the line” when it came to movies at the turn of the century. After arriving, the films would accumulate and, in some cases, cause major fires due to their flammable nature. With the collection rapidly growing, the plan in 1928 was to fill a swimming pool, covered to create a year-round hockey rink, with the reels underneath. Over time, the permafrost of the area preserved the film and inadvertently created one of the most interesting and varied collections of turn of the century film.
That series of events set the scene for a present day bonanza of historical artefacts. Just what Museum Studies graduates like!
~ Story written by Zoe Fine and Kathleen O’Brien