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Denver Museum Of Nature And Science Restores An Explorer's Travelogue

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Bob Niedrach
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couresty Denver Museum Of Nature And Science
Bailey behind the wheel of the Kinkajou with Comander Bill Pemberton, 1940 museum expedition to Baja Island group off of Mexico.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science used to be called The Denver Museum of Natural History, and for 33 years, from 1936 to 1969, the director was a man named Alfred M. Bailey. He was an ornithologist, and like a lot of active museum scientists of his time, Bailey did tons of field work, which means he traveled all over the globe, often in a magnificent sailboat, looking at the natural world, and not just birds.

Bailey was unusual because he had a film camera and knew how to use it. And now, the public will again be able to see one of his films as it is unearthed from the museum's archives.

Alfred M. Bailey plugged into a tradition of presenting travel movies that goes back to the very birth of cinema in the 1890s. Innovative travelers of the time filmed their exotic journeys and then toured the country showing the film and lecturing. Film, of course, was silent then, so the images needed the interpretation and explanation of the traveler or scientist.

These were popular programs well into the 1930s, and Alfred M. Bailey did the same thing in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. He did not shoot with sound, because the equipment of the time would have been cumbersome in places like the Galapagos, even in the 1960s, so when he came back to the museum, he showed his film and talked.

It is our good luck that the museum recorded Bailey's film talks, and it is doubly our good luck that the Denver Museum of Nature and Science now has a lively and creative moving image archivist named René O'Connell who has been preserving and restoring the films in the museum archive.

As part of the preservation/restoration process, O'Connell joined the sound recording to the film for one of Bailey's programs. So, Tuesday, Aug. 18, the museum will present Desert Islands, a film with commentary by the smart and engaging Alfred M. Bailey, which he filmed on islands off the coast of Mexico as well as on the Galapagos – and this is before the Galapagos became a major tourist destination.

Bailey was a good filmmaker. He had a fine sense of visual composition, and he's playful both on film and in sound. He was also a genuine scientist and you can see that science was foremost in his mind as he filmed. His images give precise views of plants and animals in context; he holds a full-frame shot of a nest with one large white spotted egg which was a rare sight and important for scientists, as well as the general public.

On its own, Bailey's film – and this museum program – is terrific. The sights of the huge expanse of sea and sky are thrilling. It's not postcard nature footage because Bailey had a sharper, more probing eye than that. It's like taking a trip with a friendly guy who is unusually alert to the world in front of his eyes and who knows a lot about it.

Among the things Bailey had in mind was his worry that wildness was disappearing and these sights had better be collected and preserved right away. Bailey is the man largely responsible for the world-famous dioramas in the museum, so preserving the sights of the natural world mattered to him.

It's obvious that this kind of science has changed since Bailey sailed around the world filming and having a ball on his friend's marvelous boat. You can see it in the 16mm Ektachrome color film he used, with its smeary almost electric blues that make it all feel a touch unreal. Bailey and his fellow travelers also play around as scientists now would not do – at least they would not show films of themselves sitting on seals or great sea turtles and laughing about it.

Bailey and others knew that civilization was encroaching on the wilderness, but they didn't yet have our sense of panic. So Desert Islands doesn't have our solemn urgency – but our films now don't have Bailey's relaxed sense of joy and fun.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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