While preparing for an upcoming presentation, I am finally taking a close look at the museum’s amazing film collection. Though digitized and made available online in 2007-2008 by the Internet Archive, the 675 reels of 16mm film are simply too much material for casual browsing. Spending time with the films, however, is worth it. Comprised mostly of travelogues and some museum research footage, this collection will definitely suck you in.
I had a specific reason to look at one particular film, “Brazil, pt. 2“, of footage taken by Harry B. Wright, a Philadelphia dentist with a strong interest in the medicine and so-called witchcraft of the indigenous people of Central and South America. In this reel, Mr. Wright had captured Dwight Eisenhower’s 1946 visit by to Brazil, and what better than a former United States president (though he wasn’t president at the time) to provide the appropriate seal of importance to the collection? I am, after all, preparing to show it off to a group of local archivists next week, and historical figures matter.
As it turns out, however, I found something better than a famous general and former president. Mr. Wright also visited the snake farm at the Instituto Butantan near Sao Paulo, an internationally renowned center for research on poisonous animals and also one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. There he took some unusual (and to the untrained eye, funny) footage of a man in a white smock who unceremoniously scoops, prods, hooks, and flings around hundreds (okay, I’m exaggerating, tens) of snakes with a hooked stick. The snakes, in turn, lunge with embarrassingly poor aim at his shins, but generally appear used to this kind of treatment. The comedic edge is given by the utter casualness displayed by this man (but also by the snakes), who, cigarette in his mouth, is much more Humphrey Bogart than Harrison Ford.
So take a look around the Penn Museum’s film collection. It’s a trip back in time, sideways around the globe, with unexpected turns, but you won’t get lost. Specifically to this film, you can see Eisenhower starting at minute 6:46, and the snake farm at minute 22:26. Enjoy.
For further research:
Witness to Witchcraft by Harry B. Wright (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1957)