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Cultural Collections

Candid look at a film legend

By Mary Morris

Students from the U-M Department of Screen Arts & Cultures took a deep dive into the U-M Library’s largest archive, the Robert Altman collection. The result is an expansive exhibit, The Many Hats of Robert Altman: A Life in Cinema, which will be on display in the Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery through June 30.

The exhibit started as an assignment in the SAC 330 class “Major Directors: Robert Altman & Orson Welles” taught by Professor Matthew Solomon. Students explored the Altman archive, chose exhibit topics, selected corresponding items from the collection, and drafted the exhibit’s interpretive text – all under the direction of Film Studies Field Librarian Philip Hallman and Special Collections Librarian and Curator Peggy Daub. Daub said, “It was wonderful to see their excitement as they discovered ‘gems’ in the archive and then did the research to put their finds into context. They went from knowing nothing about archives to becoming much more adept at this kind of research.”

The Altman collection is huge—more than 1000 linear feet of shelf space—and the exhibit represents only a small portion of it. As impressive as the archive is, Hallman said the important thing is that “students have the opportunity to actually get their hands on this kind of unique material.”

Robert Altman, the director of such films as MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park is considered to be one of America’s finest movie directors, although his work extended far beyond directing; he was also a producer and writer, he did theater and opera, and he founded Lion’s Gate Films. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences respected his contributions with an Academy Honorary Award. His diverse style and range of vision and cinematic approaches is captured in the photographs, papers, letters, drawings and artifacts found in the collection.

“He really liked it here and felt a kinship with the school,” says Phillip Hallman, U-M Film Studies Field Librarian. “We got the collection because he felt comfortable here and knew we would honor his legacy.” Paul Courant, U-M Dean of Libraries, and Mrs. Kathryn Altman will preside over the official unveiling and ribbon cutting ceremony.

While Altman is remembered for his great screen contributions, Hallman said “Altman had ups and downs in his career.” After the epic movie flop Popeye (so epic that the film’s composer tried to pull the music from the film at the last minute to avoid the association), Altman accepted an invitation to U-M to direct an opera, The Rake’s Progress, at the Power Center. For his semester at Michigan the Board of Regents named him Marsh Visiting Professor of Communication.

“He really liked it here and felt a kinship with the school,” said Hallman. “He came back several times, for movie premieres and once to film the movie Secret Honor, a one-man show based on Nixon. Filming took place at Martha Cook. We got the collection because he felt comfortable here and knew we would honor his legacy.”

While Altman did wear “many hats” by fulfilling different roles throughout his career, you can also take the title of the exhibit literally. Hallman said, “Students came up with the apt title for the exhibit; for each production, Altman wore a different hat.”

The exhibit is only one part of a larger tribute to Altman. A symposium about Altman was held June 7-8 in the Hatcher Gallery and included scholars; Altman’s widow, Mrs. Katherine Altman; graduate students talking about using the archive; and open conversations.


Exhibit: The Many Hats of Robert Altman: A Life in Cinema
Exhibit Location: Gallery, First Floor, Hatcher Graduate Library, 913 S. University Ave.

Dates and Times

: April 22 – June 30, open during regular library hours
Free and open to the public.

Mary Morris is a writer with the University of Michigan Libraries.

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