Australia will lose significant collections of its audiovisual heritage if the National Film and Sound Archive's budget is not increased in an effort to save rapidly deteriorating material that will soon be unsalvageable.
Archive chief executive Jan Mueller said a five-year budget freeze had pushed the organisation to the limit of its capability but, with more money, the project was still "doable".
For $50 million - the equivalent of about 10 per cent of the Australian War Memorial's redevelopment budget - the archive could digitise its entire collection.
Mr Mueller also said there was a strong impetus for the archive, the National Library, the National Museum and the National Archives, which all faced similar digitisation issues, to work collaboratively.
The archive is halfway through an ambitious digitisation project, which has set out to protect magnetic tape holdings, which includes video cassettes and audio tapes, before 2025, when the material will be considered lost.
However, only 27 per cent of the archive's magnetic tape collections had been digitised by July and the organisation has warned that without extra support, material will be lost.
Magnetic tape-based storage formats are fast degrading, with specialist archivists working with ageing equipment to capture the vast array of material, which covers everything from television broadcasts to the studio master recordings of Australian musicians.
The archive has taken donations of video cassette recorders and actively sought out equipment being decommissioned around Australia and otherwise bound for land fill.
But with experts in this technology approaching retirement age and fewer people coming through with the right expertise, a knowledge gap is opening up that could hamper the effort to save the material.
In 2018-19, the archive digitised 14,726 audiovisual collection items, exceeding its target of 10,000 items from a collection of more than 3 million items. By 2025, the archive aims to digitise 40,000 items a year, quadrupling its output.
"That doesn't mean, by the way, that you need to quadruple your budget," Mr Mueller said.
"You need more money, obviously. We think that, in the country, [with] everything that still needs to be digitised, based on experience in Europe and large-scale digitisation projects, we reckon with $50 million we can digitise the whole audiovisual collection of the country," Mr Mueller said.
He said the organisation needed to balance its digital and analogue streams, becoming a digital-led organisation that still had the skill set and technology to maintain its significant analogue collections.
"I think we've made a big effort to become more efficient at what we do," he said.
Mr Mueller said the archive would need to move to a more hybrid state, where analogue specialists were trained and brought into the digital domain. "So keeping the analogue knowledge, from our perspective, but also being able to work in the digital ambitions we have," he said.
The money needed to digitise the collection "for the rest of time" was the equivalent of about 10 per cent of the War Memorial's $498 million redevelopment budget, Mr Mueller said.
He was not frustrated by the increase in funding for the memorial because it showed there was an interest in investing in national cultural institutions.
"At least there is support for it and it shows the appetite that culture matters," Mr Mueller said.
The memorial's funding comes from the Department of Veterans' Affairs, while the archive is funded through the communication and arts portfolio.
Mr Mueller, a former advertising executive who went on to lead the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision during an ambitious 120 million Euro digitisation project that captured the country's audiovisual collection in seven years, said a digitised collection was more valuable.
"Access to your collections through digitisation means use, [which grows] exponentially, creating value. This is everything you need to prove that it works," he said.
In June, eight staff members at the archive left the organisation with voluntary redundancies designed to trim numbers in the face of budget constraints.
Friends of the National Film and Sound Archive president Ray Edmonson, a former deputy director of the archive who was heavily involved in the archive's establishment in 1984, said Australia needed to take more pride in its audiovisual heritage and increase the archive's funding.
"Here is a country that invented the feature film, we arguably invented television - that's another long story. We are an innovative country but we tend not to take pride in our innovations. ... We do these things and we kind of take it for granted," he said.