The Cinema of Science

What do birds, cicadas, and solar prominences have in common? These were all subjects of films produced by the Institute of Science in its first decade of existence. Maybe it’s those Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom episodes I watched in syndication as a kid, but when I uncovered films made and produced by some of the Institute’s earliest scientific staff, I felt like I had hit the jackpot.

The 2014 Center for Collections and Research exhibition, Cranbrook Goes to the Movies: Films and Their Objects, 1925-1975, featured a 1960 Institute promotional film titled, So, You’re Going to Visit the Institute, which introduced viewers to the museum’s exhibit halls. Fascinating though it is, the film was hardly the Institute’s first foray into film production.

Credits and introduction of So, You’re Going to Visit the Institute, Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1960. 16mm film, 13:14 minutes (full-length). Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

In fact, the Institute’s “Ciné Film Collection” had begun in 1935, just five years after the Institute opened. Scientists at the Institute, not merely content to rely on handwritten notes and still photography, embraced the new 16mm motion picture technology to record their field research and then craft educational films for Institute members.

Some of the raw footage taken in the field was recently recovered, courtesy of the Museum of Cultural and Natural History staff at Central Michigan University. These 177 films found their way back to Cranbrook after over fifty years on the road, journeying to North Carolina and back, by way of Mt. Pleasant, MI. Created by Walter Nickell (also affiliated with CMU’s museum), Edward T. Boardman, S.P. Stackpole, Florence Maxwell, and other Institute staff, several of them can be traced directly to the aforementioned early educational films.

Take for instance, Birds in Summer, the first production, which almost certainly used footage taken that same year by zoologist Edward T. Boardman, labeled “Great Blue Herons Bird’s Nests.” Couple that with the September 1935 Institute News-Letter [sic] announcement, “New Movies in Color,” which heralded the work of zoologists that summer, and you get a fuller sense of the flurry of filming activity. The article goes on to mention the capture of new footage of Michigan animals, including hummingbirds, baby herons, and others, that were soon to be edited into films.

Institute staff continued to film birds even after the 1935 educational film was completed. Walter P. Nickell, July 27, 1944. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Another early film drew from raw footage now in the Archives, perhaps again at the hand of Boardman or Donald T. Ries, Curator of the Division of Insects. Emergence of the Periodical Cicada at Cranbrook was released the following year and had several showings.

Also in 1936, a modern solar tower was built at the new McMath-Hulbert Observatory in Pontiac that made possible a film by Robert R. McMath, Institute Trustee and Chairman of the Astronomy Division, and Director of the Observatory. The film was shown publicly for the first time in the Cranbrook Pavilion, to the largest Institute audience to date: 575 people.

View of Dr. Robert McMath at the controls of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory’s solar telescope, 1940. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Some 3,000 feet of motion picture film footage was shot in just the first year of production, alone. Though it’s not yet confirmed how many in total were produced in the 1930s, nine resulting educational films are currently preserved in the Archives. While research work is the predominate focus, other films include exhibitions and staff activities, including field trips with the museum’s junior members.

Junior Members, on a field trip, descend into a quarry in Monroe, MI, September 1935. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Like So You Want to Visit the Institute, the Archives hopes to digitize all nine films. Get your popcorn ready!

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

One thought on “The Cinema of Science

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: