Home Movie Day Reveals Treasures

UMass Lowell Archive Used by Students, Scholars

10/24/2012
By Sandra Seitz

Lurking in closets, packed away in attics, stuffed in bags or boxes is a trove of celluloid treasures – home movies. The original films, often shot in brilliant color and high resolution, can outlast any videotape or digital media, but are often discarded.

Not so at UMass Lowell.

Chad Montrie got the idea while watching some of his family’s old 8 mm home movies. Seeing the image of his mom as a young girl, the social historian inside him began to look at the screen in an entirely different way.  

“Suddenly, I saw more than just family history,” says Montrie, professor of history. “I also saw evidence of gender roles, fashion trends, religious practice and social habits.” 

Struck by what he calls “the rich untapped historical source of information” inherent in home movies, Montrie did what any good historian would: he investigated the existence of an archive that gathers and categorizes them.

“I found a couple of projects in early stages that were specific to a certain community or culture,” he says. What he didn’t find was a comprehensive, accessible and searchable archive. So, he started one himself, with the help of Mitch Shuldman, head of Media Services. 

The UMass Lowell Home Movie Archive Project was born in 2004, and has grown to include hundreds of hours of categorized historical clues in a host of subject areas, including holiday rituals, vacations, sports, youth culture and maturation, ethnic traditions and assimilation, gender roles and others.

For the first time, Montrie and Shuldman participated in Home Movie Day, an annual worldwide celebration of amateur films and filmmaking, by posting an online sampling from the Home Movie Archive. Three families are represented in the selections, ranging from the 1930s to the 1960s. Picnics, first birthday parties, family vacations, weddings – all the notable occasions of everyday life.

“I’m fascinated by the lives, customs and multiple facets of ordinary people,” says Montrie. “The archive allows others access to a fresh, untapped pool of rich data.” 

UMass Lowell student and faculty researchers have made good use of the archive, drawing on primary source materials for insights on cultural trends over time. Montrie, has also used clips of family dogs and their owners to illustrate his most recent documentary, “Tough Love: Sentiment, Science and Dogs.”

UMass Lowell Libraries maintain the archive and Shuldman is working to get the existing films online, so that people can search out and view items of interest.  

“My longer-term goal is to have these videos be a part of the Library's overall digital repository,” says Shuldman. “The searchable database is complete, so my short-term goal is to tie up loose ends and make the films available online.”

Funding for the Home Movie Archive comes from grants and support from the University. For more information, go to the Home Movie Archive Project. Please note, the Archive is not accepting more films at this time.