How to use archive film in the classroom

30 Nov 2017 BY Will Massa

4 mins
trip to the moon (high-res)
trip to the moon (high-res)

Will Massa, Curator of Contemporary Fiction Film at the BFI National Archive, shares with us the joy of archive film, where it can be found, and how it can be used to educate.

As well as being thoroughly enjoyable in its own right, archive film is wonderful prism through which to explore our diverse history, society and culture. More than any other medium film can transport us immediately to another time and place, connecting us profoundly with the past. It can also help to foster debate, challenge assumptions, and explore the way values and representations have changed over time.

The British Film Institute cares for the national film and television collection, one of the largest archives of moving image work in the world. The archive was established in 1935 and its holdings are incredibly rich and varied, from rare short films made at the dawn of cinema in the late 1890s to the live capture of contemporary television. The collection represents a unique and powerful record of moving image production over the last 120 years, as well as a fascinating, evolving, portrait of Britain and its people.

We look after almost a million titles on a variety of formats from early nitrate film to born-digital files, and everything in between - so maintaining and developing our collections requires a dedicated team of curators, archivists and conservation experts who work together to ensure the nations heritage is safeguarded. Once curators have selected work for acquisition it is catalogued in detail and sent to our conservation centre where we employ state-of-the-art preservation technology to keep the collection safe.

Why do we do all this? Well, the collection is held in trust for the public and we want to ensure it is there for future generations to enjoy. But we are also committed to providing as much access as possible to the material we hold for audiences today. Our collections cover a huge variety of subjects and we encourage teachers to think about how they can use archive material creatively in the classroom:

BFI Player

Interested in LGBT or South-Asian Britain? Want a portrait of life during Edwardian times? Need to bring the Suffragettes to life? 2013 saw the launch of the BFI's own platform where audiences can access curated archive collections for free and engage with our flagship project Britain on Film, which digitised 10,000 films that are now explorable by geographic regions. Check out our newly launched Jewish Britain on Film collection. 


From London to Glasgow, teachers and students can access an even wider range of curated programmes at BFI Mediatheques which are hosted in eight cities across the UK. These venues are perfect for school visits and sessions can be booked in advance. 

Education Resources

Check out the BFI's teaching resources created for some of our recent blockbuster programmes including Gothic: The Dark Heart of FilmSci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder and Black Star.

Collections Information Database

This database contains information collected by the BFI since 1933. It holds over 800,000 film titles including television programmes, documentaries, newsreels, as well as education and training films and is updated daily. 

Three ideas to get you started:

  1. Pick a free collection from BFI Player and ask each student to pick a film to study and report back what did they find surprising? Did it challenge any assumptions they had about that period/place/group of people?
  2. Take a classic British feature film set in your region and twin your classroom with it, finding out as much as possible about it - when and where it was made, who was in it, who were the crew, how did it reflect the period, how did it reflect the region, class, identity etc. What did the critics say?
  3. Build an archive for the future. If students could select one thing to place in the archive for the future what would it be and why? What would it say about the times we live in? Think about the range of moving image work a contemporary Curator has to consider, from Virtual Reality to online video. 

Teachers are advised to view archive film to check that content is age-appropriate prior to showing it to students.

Check out the free family collection on the BFI player for a reminder of the joy of films from previous eras.

Will Massa Author

Will Massa, Curator of Contemporary Fiction Film at the BFI National Archive

Will Massa is Curator of Contemporary Fiction Film at the BFI National Archive. His role is to ensure contemporary British work is comprehensively represented in the collection and he is currently helping to pioneer a framework for the acquisition of ‘new forms’ such as VR, multimedia and VFX into the archive.

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