Through the Loupe With NMAAHC’s Video Archive Technician Emily Nabasny

Media archives “Journeyperson” Emily Nabasny cares for film collections at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

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This is the second in a series of ongoing blog posts from Smithsonian Libraries and Archives’ Audiovisual Media Preservation Initiative (AVMPI), spotlighting the labor of Smithsonian media collections staff across the Institution. Emily Nabasny currently serves as Video Archives Technician (contractor) on the Media Conservation and Digitization team of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

Learn more about Emily’s work in our upcoming program, AVMPI Presents: The View from Her on March 15th, 2023.

NMAAHC Video Archives Technician, Emily Nabasny smiles and waves to the camera from behind a towering rack of analog video equipment including a TV monitor displaying color bars.
NMAAHC Video Archives Technician, Emily Nabasny. Photo courtesy of NMAAHC Media Conservation and Digitization Specialist, CK Ming

Walter Forsberg: Hi Emily! Lovely to meet up with you. Can you start by letting us know where you are on the Smithsonian campus, today?

Emily Nabasny: Hi Walter! I am in the NMAAHC Video Digitization Lab at the Capital Gallery building, where [NMAAHC Media Archivist and Conservator] Blake McDowell and I have been working on rewiring this lab’s equipment and getting it fully back up-and-running. It hasn’t really been in use since before the COVID pandemic. Today, I’m digitizing VHS tapes from the Pearl Bowser Collection. I regularly work here, in the video lab, and next door in the film prep space where we undertake some of the film inspection work that we also do across the Mall at the museum.

WF: It seems as though NMAAHC has multiple media preservation spaces to perform work at. Is that a rarity at the Smithsonian?

EN: It is a rarity. It’s amazing to work at a place that’s so well-funded and well-equipped for this specialized labor. The media team is very privileged to have work spaces at three locations to do our preservation work. Our department has garnered a lot of positive attention for its digitization and conservation work with collections through the museum’s Center for African American Media Arts, and the Great Migration Home Movie Project. We must thank NMAAHC Head of Cataloging and Digitization Laura Coyle and the Robert F. Smith Fund for their immense budgetary support.

WF: Can you speak about how you first got interested in film and audiovisual media?

EN: For me it started very young. I grew up watching classic movies—like Hitchcock films, Universal Monsters, Vincent Price, and Turner Classic Movies—so I was exposed early on to a lot of film history. But my interest in the tangible archiving side of things really came from my grandfather Dennis L. Crow, who worked as a professional photographer. We had a lot of family slide shows and home movie projections—not only of family vacations, but also material my grandfather shot on his international work trips. They were exciting to experience as a kid, and I was fascinated by the technology. Being able to hold slides up to the light to see the images, watching the film projector spin the reels—that kind of thing.

A man with grey hair and beige sweater holds a camera to his eye, presumably shooting photographs against a backdrop of marine craft.
Emily Nabasny’s grandfather, Dennis L. Crow, shooting in New York City. Courtesy of Emily Nabasny

WF: Did you get involved in shooting film, as well?

EN: I did a lot of still film photography, which my mother is also proficient at, and shot some VHS home movies. I would play around with recording, but I was more interested in the technical side of things. Watching tapes after they were shot and adjusting the settings. I was the kid in the house who would sit in front of the old CRT television set with the knobs on the front, altering the saturation, contrast, and color balances to the extremes.

I ended up majoring in Film Studies in undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, where I learned how film reels became lost in old trunks, abandoned houses, and filled-in old swimming pools, then were ultimately rediscovered and preserved. To me, that ‘media archaeology’ side of things is extraordinary and exciting.

WF: You ultimately enrolled in the NYU Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) graduate program. I remember advising you on a project about the defunct Kodak New York City corporate archives.

EN: That’s right! When I was getting closer to figuring out what I wanted to do after college, my fascination and love of film and history—along with my penchant for organization—led some people to mention library science, which lead me to the NYU MIAP program. That’s how I found out about media archiving. And I do remember those Kodak archive boxes. Hundreds of copies of scientific publications and information about film chemicals. That was a great collection inventory project.

WF: There always seems to be someone in each family with the genealogical-interest gene. Are you that person for the Nabasnys?

EN: Oh yeah, definitely. I currently have about eight boxes of family photos in my apartment that I’ve been scanning. Our family has a collection of thousands of photos. I’ve digitized all of our home movies and, several years ago, I surprised everyone by editing some holiday clips together. Because I’m an archivist, everything is receiving detailed metadata. [Laughs]

WF: Of all the Smithsonian staff I can think of, you’re the person I know who has worked for the most museums. Has it been a decade since you started? Of course, I owe it to our Unbound blog readership to request that you run down the list for us.

EN: Almost a decade, but I’ve been here closer to eight years. It feels unusual that I’ve worked at five different Smithsonian units. I started my Smithsonian journey in 2015 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (HMSG) where I was brought in to digitize and migrate artworks recorded on Betacam videotape, and to work with [Variable Media Conservator] Briana Feston-Brunet to set up workflows and processes for time-based media conservation and to build out their media lab. I was there for two years and worked on documenting and ingesting born-digital media artworks into the DAMS. During that time (and in 2021), I worked with [Senior Conservator] Dana Moffett at the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) on their time-based media art collection, creating collections policies and ingesting digital assets into the DAMS. A lot of the public is unaware of NMAfA. It’s small compared to many of its counterparts, but it hosts an incredible collection.  

My third stop on the Smithsonian tour was the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) Ralph Rinzler Archive to undertake an enormous item-level inventory of video documentation of past Folklife Festivals. Most people know the Folklife Center from its annual festival hosted on the National Mall and from Folkways Records, which are both admittedly awesome, but fewer people know that Folklife has an amazing collection of materials documenting international cultural heritage from work they do.

WF: Folklife Media Archivist Dave Walker shared a 2002 highlight video from the Silk Road-themed festival for our recent, AVMPI presents: A Zoom with a View streamcast. Definitely great stuff at CFCH.

EN: Absolutely. It was eye-opening to learn more about their vast collections, and I ended up inventorying about 9,000 videotapes. Unfortunately, the scope of my project did not allow me time to watch any of the tapes, but I would love to. They have real variety and unique gems in their collections. My fourth location before coming to NMAAHC was at your own Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA). I worked with [Digitization Manager] Kira Sobers on cataloging the media collection elements of the Smithsonian World television program. Smithsonian World was a 1980s co-production with the PBS affiliate in Washington, WETA-TV.

Black background frame of film with white Smithsonian castle graphic and text: Smithsonian World.
Title credit from the 1980s PBS series, Smithsonian World. Smithsonian Institution Archives

WF: Ahem, I think you mean the “groundbreaking, six-season, Emmy Award-winning series, Smithsonian World.” [Laughs]

EN: [Laughs] Yes, that’s the one! I think SIA was given much of the collection by a former producer and the AV collection materials had never been fully cataloged, so SIA was never certain of what they had in terms of content. It’s mainly 16mm film, with a few reels of 35mm, ¼” audiotape, and most of the finished programs on one-inch videotape. The program was shot on 16mm, so there are production outtakes and original episode segment reels that were later combined on film to make the episodes. My project started with working on rehousing film and cataloging the AV materials for seasons 1 and 2. When COVID hit in 2020, we had to reconfigure my work to center on researching the series and describing episode content because I had to work from home. When that rehousing project eventually continues, they will be able to use my content information to organize film reels within the seasons, and to assist researchers.

The series is from the 1980s, so watching episodes was like being in a time machine. Some of the most fun things I watched were a ‘fashion’-themed episode narrated by James Earl Jones, a segment where a wandering minstrel attempts communication with animals through music, and an episode about developing and constructing the Hubble telescope. That was particularly fascinating—hearing their hopes for the project and watching, given what we know now about how that ended up…I could talk about this show for hours. Incredible interviews and footage with Smithsonian scientists, researchers, staff, and a whole spectrum of other innovators.

Emily Nabasny wears purple nitrile gloves and inspects a piece of film under magnifying equipment.
Emily Nabasny inspects film elements from 1980s PBS series, Smithsonian World, inside the laboratory at Smithsonian Institution Archives. Photo courtesy of Emily Nabasny

WF: Tell me more about your current role as Video Archives Technician at NMAAHC.

EN: After the Smithsonian World project, I moved to work with the six-person ‘Dream Team’ at NMAAHC. NMAAHC has four full-time media archiving staff members and two contractors, including myself, all working to catalog, preserve, conserve, and share the audiovisual collections. I assist with film rehousing and digitization projects, though my current main project is working with a video collection the museum acquired from author, director, producer, archivist, and founder of African Diaspora Images, Pearl Bowser. Pearl’s video collection is comprised of her own documentary work, as well as copies of ‘race films’ by Oscar Micheaux, films by African American filmmakers, documentaries about African American history, and recordings of local television station broadcasts. I have started by researching and digitizing her VHS collection, and then I will move to her U-matic format video collection. Other team members are working on digitizing and cataloging her audiocassettes.

WF: What’s been the most eye-opening part of your career to this point?

EN: When I was in school, I would have *never* expected to work in an art museum. It simply wasn’t part of my career vision. But, I was open to working with different types of media materials, and working on media-based artworks at HMSG and NMAfA was a constant learning experience because it is so different from archival materials. There are many aspects one must consider when working with media formats, and even more considerations when working with art and artists. When you’re pulling a media artwork piece out of storage for exhibition, there’s always the question: Does it still work? And, if it doesn’t work: What are we allowed to undertake as an intervention to get it working? The technological obsolescence aspect of whether or not a museum is able to exhibit an older media art piece was a fun challenge. It was thrilling to be part of those decisions in time-based media art conservation. I remember working with Briana at the Hirshhorn on the artwork At Hand by Ann Hamilton, whose audio files were stored on an outdated SATA hard drive, and we went on a wild chase trying to find the right combination of cables and adapters to get the files off the drive. At NMAfA, I was part of a conservation meeting with Sue Williamson about her work Can’t Remember, Can’t Forget, which is an interactive artwork that was originally exhibited on a computer from the 1990s. We talked with Sue about what was integral to the exhibition and meaning of her artwork, both technologically and aesthetically. ‘What is the art?’ is a fascinating question to consider when looking at media art, because its often more than viewers think.

WF: Do you have any career advice to folks interested in working in audiovisual preservation?

EN: I echo Pam Wintle’s comment in your last blog to be curious and remain open to new experiences. I’ve worked several jobs that I would have never thought I would, but I learned a lot and had great experiences. Being open to the new and unexpected is a big part of life and you never know where a different job or new collection might take you. After working at five different Smithsonian units, I can say each was different than I had expected. Every archive, every collection is unique. There will be institutional things you have to adapt to, collection elements to learn and consider, and constantly new technology to learn. There’s certainly no shortage of collections and incredible projects at the Smithsonian!

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating women’s stories in our second AVMPI Presents program. Join us for a screening of audiovisual materials from across the Smithsonian that represent both the spectrum of American women’s history and the diversity of our film and video collections. 

Join us to hear more about Emily’s work, the Pearl Bowser Collection, and more!

Register via Zoom

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