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Will the cinematic history of the 20th century be destroyed by fungus?

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A lot of twentieth century history and culture is preserved on film. But in fifty years, this history could be lost. And it's all because of pernicious microbes that eat away at film, according to a new study.

Microbiology researcher Gavin Bingley worked with the British Film Archive to study a problem that their archivists had noticed over the past decade: Fungi were destroying their films, spreading from reel to reel in their storage facilities. Bingley discovered that these were the common fungi Aspergillus and Penicillium, and that they had destroyed some films beyond repair. In some cases, the spores released by the fungi were above the recommended levels, which means that they might pose some health risks to archivists working with the films.


According to the BBC News:

Cinematographic film has a layer of gelatin on its surface. This emulsion layer is where the image is formed but also provides ideal food for fungi like Aspergillus and Penicillium.

If the fungus forms a layer of mould on a film it produces enzymes which allow it to use the film as food and to grow.

So the damage it can cause is irreversible as the mould "eats" the image stored on the film's surface.

While all film is potentially at risk, it is film that has been stored in damp conditions that is most likely to become infected in this way.


The solutions? Obviously digitizing all these films would be great, but isn't always practical or possible. Archivists can try segregating moldy films from non-moldy ones. But most importantly, we need better storage facilities. The British Film Institute's Ron Martin said:

"We go for cold and dry. At the moment, we're building a new film store in Warwickshire that will hold our master film at sub zero temperatures and at around 35% relative humidity . . . In those conditions some spores may survive in a dormant state but if they're dormant they're not eating the film.... It's certainly a big enough threat for us to be building a sub zero and low humidity vault which will cost several million pounds."

If similar facilities aren't used to store many of the movies and newsreels from the twentieth century, people of the future may look back on that century as one with a spotty historical record at best.

via BBC News and Manchester Metropolitan University