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Keeping audio-visual heritage from fading away

A scene from the Oscar nominated Swiss film, Das Boot ist voll.

The organisation set up exactly ten years ago to promote the preservation of Switzerland's audio-visual heritage says progress has been slow.

Memoriav was founded on December 1, 1995, as the umbrella organisation for various national institutions, including the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, the Swiss Film Archive and National Sound Archives.

“The institutions became partners and started to speak to each other,” said Memoriav director, Kurt Deggeller, highlighting one of the organisation’s main achievements in its first ten years.

Deggeller told swissinfo the increased cooperation had led to a greater awareness of the urgent need to safeguard Switzerland’s audio and visual heritage. He said it had been proven that radio and television were the “most important source of information” for people worldwide.

But he added that Switzerland was still lagging behind other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations.

France, for example, introduced laws in the 1930s regulating the archiving of audio and visual records whereas the Swiss Film Archive, Cinematheque, was first set up in 1943 and the Sound Archives, Fonoteca, not until 1986.

“There are enormous gaps in our archives pre-dating 1985,” the director of Fonoteca, Pio Pellizari, told swissinfo (see video).

“It’s impossible to say how much has been lost since we don’t know how much has been produced over the decades,” Pellizari explained. “We have 230,000 recordings in our collection and we have managed to catalogue only 130,000 of those.”

Common policy

Deggeller said one of the biggest challenges has been implementing a common national policy in a federalist state where much authority is devolved to the 26 cantons.

He said this has slowed preservation efforts by making it difficult to create a “legal basis” for conservation and to secure funding.

The Memoriav director said archiving laws were still “ambiguous” in the sense that they failed to ensure the archiving of all important audio and visual documents.

The last copy of a Swiss production, “Das Boot ist voll”, which was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film in 1982, was discovered in the late 1990s decaying in a chapel cellar in Rome where it had been haphazardly stored.

Since it had not received any government funding, the film about a group of Second World War refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland was not eligible to be preserved in the Cinematheque vaults.

Historical importance

Instead of the few thousand francs it would have cost to archive, the film had to be restored at a cost of several hundred thousand francs when Switzerland was forced to reinvestigate its wartime past in the 1990s, and the film’s historical importance was belatedly recognised.

Deggeller and Pellizari agree the institutions set up to archive audio-visual materials are under-funded.

Earlier this week the House of Representatives followed the Senate in approving a credit package of nearly SFr12 million ($9.08 million) for Memoriav over the next four years.

But Deggeller told swissinfo that the credit package accepted by parliament is only a quarter of what the institution needs to fulfil its mandate.

“We have a backlog of 100,000 audio files to catalogue and we can only do 10,000 a year with our current funding,” Pellizari added.

“That means we have got between eight and ten years’ work still to do without taking into account any new recordings.”

The constantly changing industry standards also pose a challenge for the world’s audio-visual archivists.


“New formats are always being introduced,” Deggeller said. “They change every two to three years and the old ones become obsolete, which means we also have to change the archiving format.”

“Formats such as MiniDisc are data reduced,” he added. “You lose about half of the audio signal when using this format. The same is true of some video formats currently popular.”

The misconception that the internet is a global archive has also made Memoriav’s job more difficult.

“The internet is very unstable and the quality of audio and visual documents on the internet is very poor,” Deggeller said.

“It’s global access,” said Pellizari. “The internet is first and foremost a communications tool and not an archive, because it’s too fast moving, and not subject to any quality control.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Memoriav is an umbrella organisation for about 150 Swiss archives and libraries.
It was founded on December 1, 1995.
The founding members include swissinfo’s parent organisation, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, the Swiss Film Archive, the Swiss National Sound Archives, the Swiss Federal Archives, the Swiss National Library, the Swiss Institute for the Conservation of Photography and the Federal Communications Office.
Parliament has agreed a credit package of nearly SFr12 million for Memoriav during 2006-2009.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR