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Lindgren, Ernest (1910-1973)

Film Archivist

Main image of Lindgren, Ernest (1910-1973)

Ernest Henry Lindgren, founder and first curator of the British Film Institute's National Film Library (now the BFI National Archive), was one of the great figures of the film archive movement. Under his leadership the BFI's archive pioneered many of the standard practices of film preservation, acquisition and cataloguing since adopted by many film archives around the world.

Initially hired, aged 24, in July 1934, to start the BFI's book library, he was asked a year later to run the new National Film Library. From then on, building up a 'national repository of films of permanent value' (with film understood both as a key historical record and as an art form) became his life's work. That the archive managed to grow from nothing (it started with no money, no equipment and a staff of two) to become one of the largest film and television collections and one of the most respected archives of its kind in the world is largely due to Lindgren's vision, determination and sheer graft.

It was Lindgren who acquired the Archive's first two key sites, at Aston Clinton (in 1940) and Berkhamsted (in 1966), and who supervised the building of some of the very first vaults specifically designed to store the unstable and highly inflammable nitrate films in the best possible conditions. With the help of scientists and of the Archive's self-taught preservation officer Harold Brown, he developed a revolutionary 'artificial ageing test' to anticipate when a nitrate film was likely to start decomposing. They subsequently initiated a programme of duplication onto acetate (safety) film. He also led the way in establishing a system of cataloguing films; unlike other major film archives, the BFI regularly published catalogues of films held in the national collections. In the 1950s he broadened the Archive's scope to embrace television (several years before the BFI officially endorsed this move, in 1961), making it the first film archive in the world to systematically collect TV programmes. Although he maintained a good relationship with the film industry (on which the Archive's film acquisitions depended), he was eager to introduce a system of statutory deposit for films in the UK, but failed to convince the government despite several attempts.

At the heart of his preservation policy was a strict principle that 'master' prints held in the Archive should not be projected, which led some to see him, unfairly, as a bureaucrat who was not particularly interested in showing films. In fact, as early as the 1930s Lindgren set up a loan section to circulate film classics to schools and film societies. He arranged the BFI's first archival screenings at the French Institute in 1950, two years before the National Film Theatre was established, and programmed repertory cycles at the NFT for many years thereafter. One of his last missions in the early 1970s was to inaugurate a viewing service enabling researchers, students and filmmakers to access films.

In the postwar period he played a key role on the international stage as an eminent figure of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). He inspired many new film archives around the world and happily shared his growing expertise with newcomers in the field. His heated arguments with his nemesis, Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, were central to the history of the film archive movement. But while the flamboyant Langlois, who prioritised immediate access to his unique prints, is remembered to this day as the movement's romantic hero, Lindgren and his scientific approach ensured the safe preservation of the treasures in his collections for generations to come. As leading film archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai has put it, "While Langlois was busy creating a myth, Lindgren was busy creating a film archive."

It is also often overlooked that Lindgren was also, alongside a handful of others such as Paul Rotha and Roger Manvell, one of Britain's very first film scholars. He lectured about all aspects of film from the late 1930s and organised the first postwar BFI Summer Schools, which became a key event in the Institute's calendar for nearly half a century. His book on film appreciation, The Art of the Film (1948), was an early milestone in British film writing.

Film critic David Robinson, a former colleague of Lindgren's at the BFI, commented after his premature death in July 1973, at the age of 62: "He was such a nice man, and a human man, and a formidable colleague, that we tended to forget he was history". The continued expansion and consolidation of the BFI National Archive ever since remains his best possible memorial.

Christophe Dupin

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