R.I. Historical Society Names Becca Bender as Film Archivist

New Curator – Formerly of NYU, PBS – to Oversee Vast Recorded Media Collection

After an extensive national search, the Rhode Island Historical Society has announced the appointment of Becca Bender as Film Archivist & Curator of Recorded Media, a new position that will advance the RIHS’s mission to promote and preserve its collection of more than 9 million feet of moving image film and well over 2,000 sound recordings, from oral history projects to jazz performances.

“This will be a crucial, permanent addition to our collections staff,” said Richard J. Ring, Deputy Executive Director for Collections and Interpretation. “We interviewed nearly a dozen candidates over the phone from California to Washington, D.C., and invited four highly qualified candidates for on-site interviews. Becca Bender stood out as having the very best mix of both sides of the film world – the production side and the archival side.”

Bender’s responsibilities will include the management, cataloging, preservation, acquisition recommendations, and promotion of the RIHS’s moving image, film, and audio-visual collections. She will also take the lead in planning to acquire, catalog, and archive born-digital recordings that are in line with the collecting scope of the RIHS.

“With Becca’s hire, we can begin providing steady and reliable access to one of the largest regional film archives in the country,” Ring said. “Generations of Rhode Islanders, and Americans in general, who came of age in the second half of the 20th century, are in fact children of the Age of Television – the history of which cannot properly be written without access to these archives. Since much of our film archive consists of local news footage, and since digital preservation is one of our greatest current challenges, we are delighted to have Becca’s expertise working for us.”

Educated at Vassar College and at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Bender’s degrees are in Film Production and Moving Image Archiving and Preservation. She has worked as Archival Producer on documentary films such as Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise (a four-hour, Emmy-nominated series on African American history hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and broadcast by PBS in 2016) and Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (a six-hour, Emmy-nominated series produced by Ken Burns and aired on PBS in 2015), among others. She has done audio-visual archival work at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, and the CUNY Television Archive, and her master’s thesis focused on local news preservation in the digital era. Bender is also a member of the Association of Moving Image Archivists Local TV Task Force.

“I’m thrilled to be joining the collections team at the Rhode Island Historical Society,” Bender said. “With the extensive local news film collections to care for, the collaborative nature of the RIHS’s Robinson Research Center, the mandate to directly share audiovisual history with the community that created it, and the opportunity to build 21st-century collections with an eye toward reflecting diverse voices, the position is a perfect fit for me.”

The RIHS film archive was created in 1969 with the donation of news film from station WPRI, and has since grown with the acquisition of silent films, home movies, industrial film, promotional films (for business and tourism), documentaries, amateur theater productions, and educational film, as well as the archives of stations WJAR (the NBC affiliate), WTEV (now WNLE, the ABC affiliate) and WSBE (Rhode Island PBS).

“Working with the RIHS’s Goff Center for Education & Public Programs to bring applicable historical audiovisual materials into the classroom, and to programming public screenings of archival film and television content from within the collections, is a priority,” Bender said. “Overall, my goal is to grant as wide access as possible to RIHS’s audiovisual materials while still attending to their long-term preservation, and I’m excited to meet my new Rhode Island neighbors through the lens of sharing history.”

Becca Bender: Career Narrative

After working for many years as a documentary archival producer, Becca Bender transitioned to the field of audiovisual archiving and preservation – shifting from the role of an archive-user into that of an archivist. She completed her graduate training at NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program (MIAP), and holds a BA from Vassar College with a major in Film Production/History, and a minor in Africana Studies.

Bender’s early career involved various production positions on Hollywood narrative films, but eventually her love of non-fiction filmmaking and die-hard East Coast roots led her to documentary work in New York City. By happenstance, her first job in New York was as the archival photo researcher for PBS’s Frontline, leading her straight into the world of archival collections. Building on her academic background in African American history, she solidified her love of archival research as the associate producer of the Peabody Award-winning documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed about New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s historic run for the democratic presidential nomination in 1972. While conducting research for Chisholm ’72, (PBS, Sundance Film Festival) Bender first encountered the treasures housed within local TV news collections, the category of collection material that would become the topic of her master’s thesis.

Additional documentaries for which Bender conducted archival research include PBS broadcasts 12 Disciples of Nelson Mandela and Beyond the Steps: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, as well as theatrical releases Gerrymandering, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, and Seymour: An Introduction. For several years she also served as an overall producer for documentaries and non-fiction TV series, but then returned to her preferred focus as a specifically archival producer on the multi-part PBS documentary series’ Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, presented by Ken Burns, and Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. This last series covered the past 50 years of African American history, and once again drew some of its most unique footage from local news collections.

Building on this career of archival research, Bender went back to school in 2016 to study audiovisual archiving and preservation with a focus on improving access to historical collections, particularly those that document underserved communities. Her training at NYU’s MIAP program covered principles and practice for work with all types of audiovisual materials including multiple film gauges, various forms of grooved media sound recordings, open reel and cassette formats of analog audio and video tape, as well as born-digital media housed on hard disk drives, optical discs, and cassettes. Given that she herself first learned production and editing on Super8 and 16mm film, she’s particularly drawn to the physicality of celluloid, and is delighted that RIHS has such extensive film collections.

During the course of school, Bender had the opportunity to work in the archives of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the City University of New York Television station (CUNY TV), and the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. As the first audiovisual archivist at Lincoln Center in decades, she unearthed a long lost collection of home movies created by Leopold Godowsky, Jr., the co-inventor of Kodachrome film. Godowsky and his wife Frances Gershwin (sister of Ira and George), belonged to rather exclusive circles, and the family’s home movies include appearances by Albert Einstein, Arturo Toscanini, and Leon Trotsky. In addition to the remarkable 100-plus rolls of 16mm film shot by the Godowsky family, the collection also contained an extraordinary 35mm nitrate film print depicting Albert Einstein and his second wife, Elsa, “driving” in a 2-minute special effects shot taken at the Warner Bros.-First National studio in Hollywood in 1931.

Bender worked with members of the Godowsky family, the Albert Einstein Archives, and the Library of Congress to create a high resolution digital scan of the Einstein nitrate. Paired with selections from the Godowsky home movie collection, Bender presented the Einstein film at opening night of the 2018 Orphan Film Symposium at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The original Einstein film print is now safely in the nitrate vaults of the Library of Congress, and the complete digital scan can be seen online here.

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