Fears of the cutting room floor: BFI plans alarm sector

Film institute's overhaul would damage research, media scholars warn. Matthew Reisz reports

January 20, 2011

Academics have described plans for an overhaul of the British Film Institute's research facilities as "pretty horrifying" and warned of major implications for their disciplines.

Facing a 15 per cent cut to its public grant, the BFI has put forward measures designed to prioritise the "core" activities that it believes "audiences most value".

As well as cutting about 37 jobs, the plans include relocating the BFI Library from central London to the South Bank, where "a pioneering digital on-demand service...will allow desktop delivery" of collections.

More serious study would take place in a "bespoke research centre" for academics and the film industry at the BFI National Archive at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.

However, the plans have rung alarm bells among researchers.

Melanie Selfe, research Fellow at the University of Glasgow's Centre for Cultural Policy Research, said that moving the BFI's main academic resource out of London would have a disproportionate impact on scholars outside the capital.

"We fit our research around meetings in London or when we're passing through," she explained. "If we have to make separate trips out to Berkhamsted, it is likely to require a different kind of planning.

"We may need to book space in advance, find a larger block of time away from teaching and generate additional funding for transport and other costs - at a time when there's less money for arts-based research."

Rob Turnock, senior researcher in the department of media arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, was also worried about the "pretty horrifying" plans.

He predicted that the proposals would result in "a two-tier structure across two sites, with just a small publicly facing library service at the South Bank and fewer people looking after the material".

This was not just an issue for academics conducting rarefied research on the minutiae of film history, stressed Dr Turnock, because the BFI's holdings also provide "the tools to engage with important political and cultural debates".

"The archives of the Independent Television Commission, for example, provide much material relevant to considering the likely impact of any moves towards the deregulation of the BBC," he said.

Scholars have also raised concerns about changes to viewing services. Researchers have traditionally been able to look at material held in the BFI archives, or accessible by agreement with the BBC, in screening rooms, and Dr Turnock said that plans to replace them were vague.

"In theory, having content delivered to your desktop sounds great, but no detail has been given about how it is going to happen," he said.

"Most of the BFI holdings are now television rather than film, and much of it is analogue. Issues of copyright and prioritisation are bound to make the digitisation process resource-intensive, and these are times of financial stringency."

Dr Selfe added: "I have used the screening facilities for relatively obscure films. If the materials made available digitally are in already established areas, it makes it more difficult to break new ground."


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