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William Kentridge donates his film, video and born-digital works to the Eastman Museum

William Kentridge (South African, b. 1955). Stereoscope, 1999. From the series Drawings for Projection. Frame enlargement from a 16mm acetate print. George Eastman Museum, gift of the artist. Source: William Kentridge (South African, b. 1955). Stereoscope, 1999. From the series Drawings for Projection. Frame enlargement from a 16mm acetate print. George Eastman Museum, gift of the artist. Source:
According to the Museum’s website, “The gift comprises both original negatives and positive prints covering Kentridge’s entire career as a filmmaker, as well as all of the master elements of the renowned artist’s works in electronic and digital media. As the home of the definitive collection and archive of Kentridge’s time-based works, the Eastman Museum is now the leading resource for the appreciation and study of this extraordinary body of work.”

The Museum’s commitment goes beyond a simple custodial role. “In addition to preserving Kentridge’s time-based works, the Eastman Museum has future plans for a major exhibition of Kentridge’s films, videos, and other time-based media, together with the publication of The Kentridge Project, a catalogue raisonné in which the artist will discuss each work in an extensive oral history interview. The artworks will also be made available for scholarly and academic research.”

Some South Africans are no doubt asking why Kentridge’s archive is being lodged in an American archive, rather than a South African institution and what this says about the capacity of South African archives to deal with bequests of this nature. There is some merit to this concern. As the Archival Platform pointed out in the State of the Archives analysis, “Audio-visual records require highly skilled technical expertise, specialist equipment and sophisticated storage conditions. While the NFVSA premises have been upgraded recently to create state-of-the-art storage facilities, the skills and equipment necessary to preserve and make their holdings widely accessible is still in short supply. None of the provinces have the capacity to receive and preserve audio-visual records under optimal conditions.” The National Film, Video and Sound Archive (NFVSA) is hard pressed to deal with its existing collections and would certainly not be able to offer the kind of attention that the George Eastman Museum is able to offer the collection or the potential to offer electronic access to the collection.

Would another South African institution, such as a university offered an appropriate home for the Kentridge archive? In 2011, when the University of Texas acquired the papers of another noted South African, author JM Coezee in 2011, some argued that the papers should not have been retained in a South African institution, such as the National English Language Museum (NELM) – this despite the fact that Coetzee has, for many years, lived in Australia. Others suggested that it was appropriate for Coetzee’s papers to be housed together with those of other literary luminaries. It is somewhat ironic that Coetzee’s papers are more accessible to South African’s than they would be had they been in the custody of a South African institution. Many of Coetzee’s papers have been digitized and made available through the University of Texas. While the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand have made some archival collections available online, and are actively digitizing their holdings other universities are not yet able to make their extraordinary resources available electronically.

It’s a sad fact that the huge potential of digitisation in support of preservation and public access has not been harnessed more effectively by South African institutions!

For further information see the Eastman Museum website

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