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Search for Lost Arctic Film Footage Yields Orphaned Gem

Story posted June 08, 2007


A modest entry in Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan's Crocker Land diary, recorded June 18, 1914, reads: "Hal and I exposed about 970 ft. of film and gathered 15 eggs."

At first glance, it's only one of many records of the naturalist's activities during his expedition to northern Greenland, where he and his crew were iced-in at their research station, Etah, for four years. But to archaeologist Genny LeMoine, curator of Bowdoin's Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum (PMAM), it's tantamount to a sighting of the Holy Grail.

Watch Rare Arctic Footage

Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum Curator Genevieve LeMoine narrates a three-minute film clip from Crocker Land footage. (View using Quicktime)

It's MacMillan's first reference to motion pictures and proof positive that he had begun taking footage in Greenland. These so-called Crocker Land movies are among the earliest MacMillan, a Bowdoin grad (1898), left to the College (in addition to his diaries, photos and extensive artifacts from that and other expeditions).

Sadly, this early record of daily life among native people in Greenland was among the casualties of film history: Shot on flammable nitrate film that could explode in the can, it was destroyed in the 1970s — as were many important, decaying archival films worldwide. The only other known copy of the footage, which MacMillan deposited with the American Museum of Natural History (sponsor of the expedition), also was destroyed for safety reasons.

Fragmented documentary films such as these are known as "orphan films," because they fall outside the scope of commercial preservation efforts. "We always held out hope that some of that film would exist somewhere else if we could just identify it," said LeMoine. "MacMillan was forever reshuffling, resplicing, and reusing film for his lectures. It became the Holy Grail for us to find it."

Their quest heated up last summer when Bowdoin alumna Audrey Amidon '03 stumbled on a familiar image deep in the film vaults of the Library of Congress (LOC). She was there to help the Museum prioritize footage to be copied onto safety film, by reviewing how much overlap existed between the LOC and the PMAM collections.


As Amidon hand-cranked through hours of original 35mm LOC footage, she saw something she recognized from the Museum's extensive collection of Crocker Land still photos: the lodge MacMillan and his men built at Etah.

"Today I found what I think is part of Mac's edited film about the Crocker Land expedition," she wrote to LeMoine in an excited, though exhausted email, adding: "I did not ... remember to measure the footage as I was fried by this afternoon."

What Amidon had uncovered — and which was beginning to show the sticky signs of deterioration — was indeed some of the Crocker Land footage, some 10,000 feet of moving images. Its content proved to be at once instructive, mysterious, and historically significant.

Running roughly 11 minutes, the film shows MacMillan's lodge, which burnt shortly after the expedition left Greenland. It includes footage of MacMillan, of the Inuit families who lived there, of dogs being hitched to sledges, and a highly intriguing scene showing an Inuit woman sitting by an ice-fishing hole.

Poring Over the Past

Rebecca Genauer ’08 leans in closely to decipher a MacMillan journal entry. “Oh, this is the really touching one,” she says, displaying a page of sepia-colored cursif.

“Some are very descriptive,” she says. “In here, he talks about a walrus hunt where the walrus covered his eyes. MacMillan said he would have done anything to give his life back. It was very sad.”

Genauer is learning a lot about the expedition – and the man – as she spends hours in Special Collections leafing through MacMillan’s diaries. So far, they have yielded only general information about human activity during the Crocker Land expedition.

“This work is kind of slow,” acknowledges Genauer, a self-designed film/anthropology major, “but I like it. Next year, I will be doing an independent study on it and I was thinking about maybe going to film preservation school.”

Whether or not she uncovers details about the Crocker Land footage, the Bowdoin senior appears to be “bitten by Arctic Fever,” says Ann Witty, PMAC assistant curator. “Peary and MacMillan were victims," she adds, smiling. "It’s not an illness, but it is a passion for the North, for the people and the landscapes. I think Rebecca’s been bitten. Mild case.”

"It's interesting," says LeMoine, peering at a digitized copy of the footage given to her by the LOC. "The woman looks like she's fishing with a hook, but she's actually keeping a rhythm. There is a song she is singing, if you could hear. Her gestures are typical of a drum dance, which often we associate with shamanic activities. We don't know if MacMillan asked her to do this, or if it was just happening. And then for some reason she runs away and others run away with her. It's mysterious."

This summer, Bowdoin senior Rebecca Genauer '08 is poring over MacMillan's diaries, which are part of the Museum's collections housed in Special Collections. She is searching for his handwritten entries that might explain this and other people and activities depicted in the film. It's an arduous process. [see sidebar]

There is one important record contained in the film that does not require academic research for corroboration. It is all too readily observable by eye: The shoreline at Etah has eroded significantly since MacMillan shot the film nearly a century ago. LeMoine and her colleagues believe it is the result of the melting polar ice cap.

It is an issue of particular concern to LeMoine, who last summer traveled to Etah to excavate the remains of Inuit houses there. "We are losing some of the archaelogical sites to erosion," she notes. "Not only the prehistoric sites, but the things MacMillan's people left behind. These provide valuable insight into how MacMillan incorporated Native technology into his field practices and how Inuit used trade goods in their everyday lives."

The search for more of the Crocker Land footage continues as the Arctic Museum and Library of Congress staffs preserve and catalogue their Arctic film collections.

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