The Little Witch: a Case Study in Categorization

by Russel Altamirano

This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to work at The Wende Museum as a Collections and Curatorial Intern. I assisted the Audiovisual Archivist and Chief Curator on research projects involving the museum’s expansive collection of East German film. These projects elevated my elementary familiarity with museum collections to a comprehensive understanding of archival processes. I learned to inspect and clean 16mm films, digitize and preserve their content, and catalog them to promote greater research accessibility. Structurally organizing aspects of this large archive and concurrently researching the films’ history also raised many questions about their historical significance and collection value, especially regarding the categorization of multifaceted objects. Nonetheless, viewing these objects through the eyes of a collections manager, archivist, and historian encouraged me to uphold their historical significance.Films

One of my areas of concentration was The Wende Museum’s “Berufe im Bild” (BB) Collection, a hidden gem among many in their vault, consisting of short film documentaries covering various careers in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. The series was announced at a press conference in Adlershof, Germany in 1976, where it was presented as a catalog in which youth could find a career that matched their interests.[1] The BB films were distributed by Fernsehen der DDR, the state television broadcaster of East Germany, and local Berufsberatungzentren, career guidance offices. Ideally, students were then able to pursue their preferred choice after graduating 10th grade by attending vocational school. Since unemployment did not (legally) exist in the GDR, apprenticeships and vocational schooling were intended to prevent any voids in the work force. About 75% of students would become Facharbeiter, or skilled workers.[2] The Berufsausbildung lasted two years (three years if they chose to continue their education further).[3] These requirements are noted very clearly in nearly every film, along with the individual career descriptions. In other respects, however, the BB films vary considerably in structure and script. This is not surprising given that the series was produced over the course of several years, from 1976 to 1990. Even so, this situation is undeniably telling to the cultural or film historian who interests themselves with the development and content of films. On the other hand, how does one order and categorize objects that share the same background and physical traits but contain a variety of content that individualizes each?

Moreover, though one can understandably associate propaganda with the films on the museum’s shelves, it is difficult to classify them only as state propaganda or to apply any strict label, for that matter. For instance, films including Facharbeiter für chemische Produktion and Diplomchemiker can also act as artifacts and records that document the GDR’s education system, the history and development of film production, and much more. These topics frequently came to mind as I researched and handled the actual objects to inspect and preserve them. Should our interpretation of their historical meaning determine their prioritization in collections today?

Excerpt from Berufe im Bild: Diplomchemiker from The Wende Museum on Vimeo.
The career profiled in this film is a chemist with a university degree in contrast to the working class job profiles that make up the majority of the collection.

The BB films represent only one example of the variety of series and individual films that comprise The Wende Museum collection; therefore it should not be surprising to come upon new findings. For instance, when I located a BB film can titled Facharbeiter für Fleischzeugnisse/Fleischer (Skilled Worker in Meat Production), I was surprised to find Die kleine Hexe, The Little Witch. This enchanting animated film based on Otfried Preussler’s fairytale demonstrates a case study that questions how to organize an expanding and eclectic collection. These films are also artifacts that offer a glimpse into the world that is forgotten: the human side that tampered with and handled the objects we now collect as history.

As exciting as the discovery was and valuable for the museum to add a recognized 16mm silhouette animation to their inventory, the archival implications of this discovery were complicated. This was my first encounter with a misplaced and/or mislabeled film, shifting my focus to the materiality of the film cans and studying them as historical artifacts in order to reasonably store them. For starters, should the two items be separated even if they entered the collection together? Does the empty can hold enough historical significance to be cataloged as its own item within the collection and the film cataloged as another? The answer would depend on who is asked. Such questions also exist in other aspects of museum collections, for example print and manuscript rooms. Where would a book be stored if it contains engravings etched by one artist but designed by another, with clippings from various other manuscripts slipped between the pages?[4] The many-layered objects in The Wende Museum collection also pose obstacles to easy classification. Many hands touched this artifact. For this reason, it may become difficult to view Die kleine Hexe and its film can, for instance, as isolated objects. Although physically separating them may be most practical in some circumstances, preserving their history, both intellectual and material, is just as valuable.

Excerpt from The Little Witch from The Wende Museum on Vimeo.

Russel worked as a Collections and Curatorial Intern at The Wende Museum through the Getty Multicultural  Undergraduate Internship Program. She studies Art History and History at the University of California, Riverside with a concentration in Central Europe.

[1] Thüringer Tageblatt, Weimar. 20. Sep. 1976, “Was willst du werden?” and Fernsehen der DDR, Programmdirektion Presseinformation, 5/76, “Berufe im Bild: Facharbeiten über die Schulter geschaut”.
[2] Interview mit Frau L., Berufsberaterin in der DDR. Zuletzt aktualisiert: 09. November 2004, 19:47 Uhr http://www.mdr.de/damals/artikel75566.html
[3] Karl Schmitt, “Education and Politics in the German Democratic Republic”, Comparative Education Review, Vol. 19, No. 1, Politics/Education (Feb., 1975), pp. 31-50.
[4] For more information on the classification of customized early modern books, see Georgia E. Brown, “Cutting, Sticking, and Material Meaning in a Book of Passion Cycle Engravings”, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (2015) 45(3): 543-556.
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