26 May 2011 – The Desmet Collection at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands has been inscribed on the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, a list of documentary heritage including books, archival records, and film and sound recordings that are of exceptional significance for the world. This was announced yesterday by the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, in Paris. The entire collection will become part of the prestigious UNESCO programme that assists countries in safeguarding and sharing documentary heritage. The Jean Desmet Collection includes many films from the early years of cinema that were once presumed lost. Beside its relevance to film history, the collection forms an equally important cultural and corporate archive. Film pioneer Jean Desmet was the first major distributor and cinema owner in the Netherlands.
The collection of Jean Desmet (1875-1956) has been held by EYE Film Institute Netherlands (formerly the Filmmuseum) since 1957. The vast collection contains, among many other items, masterpieces by D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade, films with Asta Nielsen and Lyda Borelli, and productions from the film companies Pathé, Gaumont and Edison. A large number of the films in the collection from the Netherlands’ first professional distributor are unique copies (the only preserved copy in the world).
In most countries, three-quarters of the films produced during the silent film era have been lost. Because Desmet kept almost everything – even the bills from the window washer were archived – EYE now has a collection of (primarily non-Dutch) films that were often no longer available in their countries of origin. When these films were restored and screened at festivals abroad in the 1980s, they caused a revolution in the international film history world. Many of these films had previously been presumed lost.
About the collection
The donation from the Desmet heirs in 1957 forms an important base for the current collection of silent films at EYE. It’s the particular combination of films, posters, photographs and business archives that makes the Desmet Collection so valuable, providing an incredible insight into the early years of cinema. As a distributor, Desmet focused on financial gains; film wasn’t yet seen as an art form. The significance of this substantial collection lies thus in the combination of all the films, big and small, that defined the daily programming of the cinemas. The films and paper documents Desmet preserved reveal much about supply and demand at the time, and tell the history of what was then a very popular, new form of entertainment.
The collection includes 933 films, nearly all of which originate from the period between 1907 and 1916. Most of the films are ‘one-reelers’, with a running time of about 10 minutes, and a large number of these films are unique. The collection additionally includes circa 2,000 posters and nearly 700 photographs. It is unparalleled worldwide as a cultural and social-historical document due to both its size and its contents.
The complete press release is available here.