Television History And The Archive
by Justin Carville
Issue 23 Summer 2000
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As part of their millennium year programming RTE television have been screening a short three minute filler called 100 Years: Ireland in the Twentieth Century. The format of the programme consists of archival news footage, reproductions of newspaper headlines and still photographs of historic events appearing on screen with an accompanying narration by Professor Brian Farrell. Produced in conjunction with the National Millennium Committee, 100 Years, which is screened twice every twenty-four hours, recounts significant events that have taken place over the last century which correspond to the date each particular episode is aired. So for example, on the 3rd of May 1916, Padraig Pearse, Thomas McDonagh and Thomas J. Clarke are executed at Kilmainham Gaol. 1949 Westminster's Ireland Bill is passed. 1973 the Northern Ireland Assembly Act is rushed through Parliament and in 1997 British PM Tony Blair appoints Mo Mowlam as Northern Ireland Secretary.
As the above example illustrates, the presentation of these disparate moments of Ireland's past makes the course of Irish history appear as a fait accompli. The lack of any origin and resolution to these individual histories of moments that briefly flash across our living room television screens brings a certain inevitability to the history of Ireland in the twentieth century. The revisionist debates in modern Irish history have shown us however, that the histories of moments long since past are far from coherent and indisputable. As the French philosopher and historian Michael Foucault has noted; 'what is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin, it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.'
The illusion of coherence in 100 Years presentation of Ireland's past is sustained by the images of history which accompany each disparate historical moment which appears on screen. The only relationship that actually exists between these historical snapshots is their 'represented-ness', the fact that they exist, for however briefly, in visual form on the flickering television screens of Irish homes.
Like other millennia exposés in the print and broadcast media such as The Irish Times's Eye on the Twentieth Century, RTE's recollection of the millennium has been its postscript. Almost without exception millennium recollection in the media has focused on events of the last century. This is by and large due to history on television being restricted to a past which exists in images. Most television documentaries and historical programmes are of events that have occurred during the last 160 years, they are for the most part histories that are post the invention of photography. Those television histories of events before the invention of photography are forced to portray events as re-enactments, and re-enactments fail to convey the 'factness' and 'nostalgia' of the plastic image that makes television history so engaging. This is why the visual archive has become such an important resource to television broadcasting.
Like other modern broadcasting corporations, RTE have made extensive use of their celluloid, video and photographic archives in its television productions. The photographic archive in particular provides endless material for television production. Photographs used for one production can be re-presented again and again. Photographs can be reproduced in different combinations, presented in different formats to tell new stories to changing audiences. Different tracking shots across the surface of the image and the duration of time the photograph appears on screen can change the viewers response to an image. Indeed photographs viewed on a television screen are one of the few occasions when we loose control of our sight. The way we look at the photograph on television is beyond our control. We are quite literally forced to see the photographic image through the eyes of another.
The structure and content of photographic archives can sometimes tell us more about the institutions which administrate them than the events which exist recorded on the photographs themselves. Archives are frequently thought of as repositories for objects that are only occasionally sought out to be looked at. They are, like the objects they hold, considered to be stable receptacles of knowledge unchanged by the passing of time. RTE's photographic archive however is always changing and transforming. Its content and function is always under review to meet the diversifying roles of programme makers and the changing demands of broadcasting. During the last five years in particular the photographic and illustrations collection at RTE has slowly been transformed into a digital archive. Since 1995 over 100,000 photographs and illustrations have been transferred to photo CD.
Such a project is as much a corporate necessity as an act of preservation. The digital archive allows for quicker accessibility and retrieval of its images, while broadening its user base. These administrative changes to the archive have also led to changes in its acquisitions and the role it serves in the broadcasting industry. RTE's collection of historical photographs such as the Murtagh collection which covers Royal visits at the beginning of the twentieth century and the Cashman collection which charts the Civil War of 1922, form only part of the archive's record of the nation's history. The changing role of the archive has meant that it now documents the history of the broadcasting station itself.
Continuity shots and production stills of RTE's dramas and soap operas provide a record of Ireland's visual culture beyond the photographic image. Dramas and soap operas often thought of as textual representations of dialogues between characters are also visual representations. Production set design for television drama and credits for documentaries and current affairs programmes can tell us as much about the way in which the national broadcaster presented its viewers with an image of itself as the dialogue between characters on the Riordans or Glenroe.
RTE's collection of photographs and illustrations provide images not only of the nation's history but also images of the history of the nation's broadcaster. The images found in this archive may one day tell the historian more about the nation's representation of its history than the history represented in its photographs. As for those moments of the past which have failed to be represented, they are destined to remain inaccessible passages of history beyond our remote control.
Other articles by Justin Carville:
Issue 24: Will the Real History of Photography Please Stand Up? [Feature] ▸
Issue 27: The History of the Solitary Lighthouse Keeper [Review] ▸
Issue 27: Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History by Geoffrey Batchen [Book Review] ▸