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Spotlight on Memory of the World heritage: An audiovisual window on the world

© NFSA/Kelly Gang Poster, 1906

UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register includes France’s Lumière films that were the first to capture the lives and customs of people in countries in Europe and elsewhere, the world’s very first feature length narrative film made in Australia in 1906, newsreels from 1960 to 1990 that view world events through Cuban eyes, and footage tracing the final years of apartheid and the birth of democracy in South Africa.

In our world of satellite television, mobile phones and the Internet, even people in the remotest villages can have instant access to events and information from around the globe. But just over a century ago this was not the case and people were more isolated from outside events. Audiovisual records have transformed society and are now rightly regarded as custodians of the world's documentary heritage.

Lumière Films

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2005
  • Year of inscription: 2005
  • Country: France
  • Heritage item: Link

Films made by two of the world’s first cinematographers, the French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, are just one of the collections included on the Memory of the World Register. Between 1896 and 1900, the Lumiere cameramen shot 1,423 films in France, Europe, Africa and even in Asia and North America. This footage is often the very first taken in these countries and includes film of leading personalities such as the British Queen Victoria.

In December 1895 the Lumiere brothers projected 10 of their films to a paying audience in Paris, which film historians credit as being the first use of cinema as a mass medium. Not long after, in 1906 in Australia, Charles Tait wrote and directed what is regarded as the world’s first feature length narrative film.

The Story of the Kelly Gang

© NFSA/The police surrounding Glenrowan Hotel

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2007
  • Year of inscription: 2007
  • Country: Australia
  • Heritage item: Link
  • UNESCO Courrier: Article

The Story of the Kelly Gang, directed by Charles Tait in 1906, is the first full-length narrative feature film produced anywhere in the world. It traces the life of the legendary bushranger, Ned Kelly and his gang, whose exploits gained them notoriety in the second part of the 19th century.

Just as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is testimony to German silent film art, The Story of the Kelly Gang symbolises not only the birth of the Australian film industry but also the emergence of a national identity.

Although considered lost in the 1940s, the discovery of fragments enabled the National Film and Sound Archive to recreate a 17-minute film. The original poster and publicity booklet of the film are also part of the collection.

Original Negative of the Noticiero ICAIC Lationamericano

© Ana Ines Manzano/Analysis of newsreel images

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2008
  • Year of inscription: 2009
  • Country: Cuba
  • Heritage item: Link
  • UNESCO Courrier: Article

The Cuban Institute on Cinematographic Arts and Industry (ICAIC) was the first cultural institution created a few months after the Cuban Revolution, in March of 1959. Between 1960 and 1990, ICAIC weekly produced the Latin American Newsreels documenting events both in Cuba and elsewhere in world, including historic moments like the Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Prague Spring of 1968.

These newsreels are of far more than local significance. They portray not only the unfolding situation in Cuba following the revolution but also how world events were viewed through Cuban eyes.

Electricity blackouts in the 1990s, economic woes and dealing with a tropical climate have not made the preservation of the collection a simple matter and urgent measures are still required to guarantee its safety and the transfer onto a digital format.

Liberation Struggle Living Archive Collection

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2007
  • Year of inscription: 2007
  • Country: South Africa
  • Heritage item: Link

The Doxa Collection of South Africa comprises footage of events during the final years of apartheid, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the country’s move to democracy. The collection of 674 tapes, spans the period from the early 1980s to the historic elections of 1994 and the inauguration of Mandela as the country’s first democratically elected president.

Also documented is the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which set a world standard through its attempt to deal with wrongdoings in the apartheid era. Because of the censorship of the local media at the time, many South Africans did not see the footage produced for foreign companies and were largely unaware of what was happening in their country. The lessons that can be learned from its transformation from a pariah State to democracy without widespread bloodshed are of universal significance.

Through the creation of the Liberation Struggle Archive Project, Doxa Productions, which filmed the original footage, together with its partners, hopes to transfer all the film onto a digital format to make it more accessible to both students and the public.

The documents are written in Tamil, one of India’s two classical languages, on pages made of dried, smoothed and smoke-treated palm leaves, which were commonly used as writing material in ancient India.

Palm leaf manuscripts deteriorate steadily in tropical conditions and so in the past they would have been copied onto new sets of dried leaves when necessary.

The manuscripts held at the Institute are too fragile to be lent out, but a microfilming project is underway to protect the information on the documents and facilitate accessibility.

Today, the ability to read the archaic palm leaf script is a dying skill which survives only among specially trained scholars, and the texts are being translated by the Institute into modern Tamil.

The medicines detailed in the manuscripts and prepared in the ancient way are still used in southern India today.

Memory of the World Register

Listing of items such as these on the Memory of the World Register is intended to generate interest and help with the conservation of documentary heritage which helps us to understand our society in all its complexities.

However war, social upheaval, looting, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate conservation and lack of funding have all had a disastrous effect on the conservation of our documentary heritage.

A growing awareness of this, together with UNESCO’s belief that the world's documentary heritage belongs to all and should be preserved and protected, led to the establishment of its Memory of the World programme in 1992.

The programme works to identify and facilitate the preservation of valuable archive holdings and library collections worldwide, and assists with their dissemination. Inscription of a collection in the Memory of the World register, created in 1995, is part of the process.

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