Watching old films is always a bit of hunt for buried treasure, particularly if you stray away from a narrow list of classics. But few of these treasure hunts turn as literal as what happens if we investigate the 1949 documentary ‘Daybreak in Udi’, an Oscar winner you’ve probably never heard of.
Dutch documentary filmmaker Bert Haanstra picks up his Oscar statuette. British director Terry Bishop doesn’t seem to have been so fortunate (Image: National Archives of the Netherlands, CC-BY-SA)
Shot in Nigeria by Britain’s Crown Film Unit, the film won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1950. This was the British Government’s fourth Oscar. During the Second World War, the Academy had saluted Roy Boulting, Harry Watt and Carol Reed’s work on Desert Victory, Target for Tonight and The True Glory (made with the US). These films were the award-winning tip of a wonderful iceberg: documentary films of extraordinary quality and significance, paid for by successive British taxpayers for the 20 years since the creation of the Empire Film Unit in 1929. There was nothing unusual about the international perception of Daybreak in Udi as an outstanding film. It was well understood that (whatever other mean stuff people might say about the British film industry) we knew how to make a documentary. In fact the only unique thing about Daybreak’s win was that it received an Oscar statuette, which had not happened during wartime.
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My colleague looked at the article with a mixture of surprise and mild horror.
We were part of the way through an afternoon of Wikipedia training and she had decided to have a gander at the article on Historical geography. Take a look if you like. It won’t take long, it’s only about four paragraphs and that’s a paragraph longer than when she found it – which is the point I’d like to make. When confronted with a hopeless Wikipedia article (and goodness knows there are plenty of those) there are really two reactions. One is to tut, mutter darkly about the deficiencies of crowdsourced knowledge and consider another source of information. The second is to fix it.
At The National Archives, after some consideration, we’ve decided to take the second option. We’re going to train more staff and run more projects across Wikimedia Foundation websites. We’ve already started. Today you can stand next to Domesday Book, scan a QRpedia code with your phone and access information on the book from Wikipedia in 40 languages – a forest of labels we could never produce on our own.
The Sunday River (CO 1069/214), from The National Archives and now also South African Wikipedia
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Heavens above! Could a star save your life?
Sometimes, when searching through the catalogue (inevitably for other things), files leap out that simply have to be investigated. For instance HO 199/301 “British bombs and other devices accidentally dropped on England by British aircraft” (somewhat shamefacedly subtitled “also British mines”) does essentially what it says on the tin. But it’s an intriguing tin. However, even better is the neighbouring file from 1942, the bafflingly monikered “Journalistic astrology”. I wanted to know what journalistic astrology was. My guess was that newspaper columnists were making uncomfortably accurate predictions of military decisions but the truth is slightly stranger.
Desert Island (by Flickr user ronsaunders47 - CC-BY-SA)
When you work in an archive, a certain amount of shelving is, of course, unavoidable, and as a word, I always feel ‘shelving’ has quite a pleasant ring to it. But while it’s euphonious, it’s not positive in every context. It can imply something interrupted, put to one side, and it’s just life that this is what happens, in a world of competing priorities, to some projects that seemed like good ideas at the time.
A few weeks ago when I talked about the purpose of hack days I promised I would report back after we had actually held one here at the Archives.
Last weekend, a large group of enthusiastic attendees joined us here at Kew for Hack on the Record. I think it might be the first hack day held actually inside a UK government department but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.
Approximately 12 hours in - only 12 to go!
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