Marin History Museum on nitrate film

What’s black and white and flammable?

The following is a guest post authored by Jo Haraf of the Marin History Museum in San Rafael, California.

For the Marin History Museum, our variation on the old, “What’s black and white and red all over?” riddle reflected a potentially dangerous artifact in our collection.

The Museum collection included a unique donation: a canister of silver nitrate film labeled “San Rafael Military Academy 1927–1928.”

A ninety-year-old film sounds exciting, not threatening; but nitrate films, which are based on a substance used to create explosives, are both unstable and flammable when improperly handled. Before the hazardous tapes were banned and projection booths were lined with asbestos (creating yet another problem,) tragedies such as the deadly fires in New Jersey, Scotland and Ireland were too frequent.

Eastman Kodak, which manufactured nitrate film from 1889 through 1952, notes on its website,

“While it deteriorates, nitrate base film makes a kind of pressure cooker of the film can in which it rests, especially if it’s taped closed. If the gases can’t escape, heat builds and spontaneous combustion may not be far behind.”

If combustion isn’t bad enough, the resulting fire releases toxic gases. And water or traditional fire extinguishers don’t douse the flames; they just create more poisonous smoke.

The hazards of do-it-yourself archival film storage

Based on professional recommendations, the museum kept its film safely frozen (we hoped!) in a black, pizza-style archival box. Eventually, the package ended up in a board member’s freezer, taking space badly needed for real pizzas, leftovers and ice cream.

In 2017, we contacted PRO-TEK Vaults, a southern California firm specializing in commercial and historical film storage, restoration and digitalization. PRO-TEK’s expert and gracious nitrate preservation team guided us through the steps needed to transfer our dangerous film to a benign digital form, including an explanation of how to safely defrost our reel and coordinating our hazardous goods shipment.

Who would have ever thought that our local county museum would need to transport dangerous cargo?

(Note: Nitrate film is a hazardous material regulated by the US Department of Transportation and similar regulations around the world.)

Shortly after shipping our little bundle of explosives, we received word from PRO-TEK staff that the Marin History Museum was the proud owner of not one, but two films, both in exceptional condition.

Creating value from recovered historical film

One of our newly recovered films, created by Auerbach Productions, is an eight-minute video brochure for parents considering enrolling their sons in the San Rafael Military Academy, a predecessor of today’s Marin Academy. The film, shot in black and white with a final hint of color, displays a past where grade and high school cadets study, exercise, march, dine, wash up, participate in sports and celebrate a well-deserved honor for a perfectly made bed.

Museums normally hoard artifacts like the Lord of the Ring’s dragon Smaug guards his gold. But industry standard museum policies allow for the disposal of artifacts containing an inherent vice: the tendency in an object or material to deteriorate or self-destruct because of its intrinsic internal characteristics.

We were reasonably confident that spontaneous combustion passes muster as an internal vice; so, after conversion to digital form, PRO-TEK safely disposed of the original films for us.

No need to keep the old films as we now have digital copies to store and share long into the future.

Please join us in rediscovering the past as we review the troops at the San Rafael Military Academy.