From Vault to Screen: Preserving Bishop Museum's Silver Nitrate Films


In 2019 ʻUluʻulu and Bishop Museum were awarded a Preservation & Access grant from the Hawaiʻi Council for the Humanities to collaborate on Vault to Screen. The project was envisioned to safely preserve and ensure community access to nitrate films in the Bishop Museum Library & Archives' historic moving image collection.

35mm nitrate movie film, which was in use from the 1890s until the 1950s, is dangerously flammable and can deteriorate dramatically in Hawaiʻi’s climate. While earlier preservation projects had transferred many of the Museum's nitrate films to a safe format, three nitrate newsreels remained to be preserved and made accessible.

Lab work on these three films returned a diverse collection of stories from Hawaiʻi and the Pacific, accompanied by voiceover narration and incredible live sound: Samoan dance filmed in Tutuila, Sāmoa; Samoan children pledging allegiance to the U.S. flag; a hula performed with ‘ulīʻulī; a football game between the Kamehameha Schools Cadets and the McKinley High School Tigers; surfing at Waikīkī; historic news coverage of the 1949 Hawaiʻi dock strike; and more.

Three nitrate newsreels are now digitized and are available to be viewed for the first time since they were produced for movie theater audiences in the 1930s and ʻ40s. Short clips of the films preserved by this project are below.