Home Movie Preservation: A Conversation with CK Ming

CK Ming

By Heidi Yarger

First, a brief biography: CK Ming received their undergraduate degree in film production at American University, where they were exposed to film preservation and the works of Oscar Micheaux through a silent film course they took in their last semester. They went on to pursue a Moving Image Archiving and Preservation degree at New York University. After their time at NYU, CK worked in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). They went on to work on the South Side Home Movie Project in Chicago, where they stayed until moving onto their current position at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). They are also on the National Film Preservation Board, serve as the chair for the Pathways Fellowship program through the Association of Moving Images (AMIA) and serve as a Director of the Board, and are on the Board of Directors at the Center for Home Movies.

In April, I had the great pleasure of talking with CK Ming, Media Conservation and Digitization Specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). A large portion of their work is focused on the Robert F. Smith Center for the Digitization and Curation of African American History at the Smithsonian. The Robert F. Smith Center aids institutions and individuals around the country in preserving their heritage. They have a mobile digitization truck equipped with a film scanner, video racks, a DAT tape player, and basic audio recording equipment. Along with the truck, the Smith Center travels with a professional still image photography set-up, which people can use to get yearbooks, recipes, and other precious ephemera professionally photographed for digital storage. CK gave me an idea about the other kinds of work the Smith Center facilitates by describing a project they worked on recently with a museum in Lawrenceville, Virginia. The museum got in touch after saving documents and records from a now defunct HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) called Saint Paul’s College. Archivists from the Smith Center traveled to Lawrenceville and held a community archiving workshop where they taught volunteers how to identify media, create image descriptions, and construct inventories with the items that were saved, all in the span of a one-day workshop. “So that’s a big thing that the Smith Center does,” CK told me, “Working with communities and trying to meet their needs.” 

Along those lines, one of the major themes in our conversation was the realm of community curation and the role archivists play in public preservation and digitization projects. In addition to working with the Smith Center, CK works on the Great Migration Home Movie Project through NMAAHC. This project began in 2017 and focuses on collecting and digitizing home movies from African American communities. Home movie preservation is not new for CK, who played a major role in the South Side Home Movie Project in Chicago before moving on to NMAAHC. Connecting film archive professionals with locals in south Chicago neighborhoods, the South Side Home Movie Project aims to preserve, digitize, and screen amateur moving image material. Much of our discussion revolved around the differences in media storage, cataloging, web access, and donor relationships between the two projects. The South Side Home Movie Project is a much smaller, more localized operation than the Great Migration Project. This has both advantages and disadvantages. Unlike the Great Migration Project, South Side keeps the original movies from their donors. So when starting, one of the first things CK did was find physical storage for the collection. They also worked on creating a digital storage space, web portal, and catalog so that the collection could be accessible to the public. Building from the ground up, they implemented CollectiveAccess, an online system for the digital archive. On the other hand, the Smithsonian uses The Museum System (TMS), which, CK told me is, “not so great for describing film and video and media.” However, because the system is already in place, there isn’t much flexibility to implement a new one. 

Differences between the two projects continued with metadata collection. In terms of creating metadata for home movies, at South Side, the team spends a considerable amount of time with donors, often recording oral interviews and maintaining those relationships over time, which is a huge benefit of being a locally focused collection. CK has also imported taxonomic terms from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and the Chicago Film Archive, which will be used in a large-scale project to add metadata to the items. In contrast, with the Great Migration Project people often come in to have one or two tapes digitized and might not be seen again. In that short time frame, the team isn’t always able to collect the information they need to contextualize the movies, which makes it difficult when they are creating metadata online. However, because the Great Migration Project is a study collection, often when scholars come to look at movies, they can contribute tags and keywords to add while researching. The collection spans from the 1930s all the way to 2008, and the team has a goal to add as many tags and item-level descriptions as possible. Both projects aim to have the greatest accessibility for the students, families, and communities using the materials.

Discussions of home movie collection access and use in the Great Migration Project provided insight into the nature of home movies and potential limitations on use. Occasionally, filmmakers ask for permission to use footage from the home movies, but CK told me that isn’t really what the collection is meant for, and that most requests are turned down. We talked about the relationship home movies hold as media originally made for private use and how that shifts when they enter a public archive. It can be challenging to respect the intimate nature of home movie recordings, while still supplying valuable materials for researchers and others in an archives’ designated community. Establishing the use limits for home movie collections is critical to respecting the originators of content.

I asked CK if they saw home movies gaining more archival and institutional recognition in the future. They felt home movie preservation was not seen as something large archives do unless the movies are connected to someone famous, and that it becomes difficult to decide what to save when you are considering how much space you have, “if all the movies are important, then you have to accept all home movies with limited resources.” In the future, CK hopes that advances in storage technology will change this reality. However, they also expressed their happiness that people who are entering the field seem to have a greater interest in home movie preservation, “I do think more scholarly work needs to be done…to advance home movie preservation. And it is exciting.”