Isotype in films

Marie Neurath (1946)

Editorial note (ME). In early January 1946, three weeks after the death of her husband Otto Neurath, Marie Neurath received a request from Richard Delaney for a 900-word article about Isotype. Delaney was Honorary Secretary of the Portlaoighise Film Society (a branch of the Irish Film Society, founded in 1936) and wanted to publish the article in the Society's monthly journal, Scannan. He asked that the article focus 'on the late Dr. Otto Neurath, and his work on the invention and development of the isotype technique', predicting it would be of interest to the Society's members who had seen 'isotypes' in screenings of films such as World of plenty and Blood transfusion.

Delaney asked for the completed article by 3 February, and on the first of that month Marie Neurath sent a text of some 960 words from Oxford. The typescript was duly cut by about 15% for publication (principally the second half of paragraph 5, and all of paragraph 7), appearing as 'Isotype in films' in volume 1, number 3 of Scannan, June 1946; it was not illustrated. The original text of Marie Neurath's typescript is now given below, in full, with silent corrections to a few minor misspellings. Though brief, the text is of particular interest since neither Otto nor Marie Neurath themselves wrote a great deal about the use of Isotype in films. Exceptions are Otto Neurath's 'Visual education' and his visual autobiography, From hieroglyphics to Isotype, where lengthier discussions can be found. The latter's imminent publication was noted by Marie Neurath in the final sentence of her article.

(MN typescript + Scannan: I.C. 8.1A, A-Z; Delaney request: I.C. 1/13, 'Correspondence of the Isotype Institute' (1945-46), L-Z)

Isotype in films

By Marie L. Neurath, Secretary,
Isotype Institute, Oxford

People who have seen The world of plenty [sic] or Blood transfusion may have noticed that the Isotype diagrams used in them are somewhat different from other diagrams used in films. For instance the little man figures never make funny faces to provoke a laugh. There is a laugh very often - but stimulated in a different way. Somebody may remember the diagram showing the distribution of incomes. First all little figures stand on the same level, which is explained as the average income. Then some lose their level, moving down - these have less than the average. Others go up. There is one figure that does not seem to stop, up and up it goes. There is a laughter of surprise - but it is concerning the very score of the story, and it illustrates something that is otherwise published (or hidden away?) in statistical tables.

We at the Isotype Institute try to reach this type of effect as often as possible. We think out: which is the point that has to be brought home, and then we try to do so in such a way that everybody will grasp it. We avoid distracting the attention from the more important issues. 'What is important' of course is a matter of judgement, and here the educationalist has his part to play.

There is a long story behind these diagrams. It all started in Vienna more than 20 years ago. Dr. Otto Neurath, the inventor and creator of Isotype, was at that time closely connected with the housing movement of that city. In contact with the members of a co-operative housing organisation he realized that people should know more about themselves, about their environment, their local government, and so on; that only by knowing more they could develop their judgement and become active citizens of a democratic society. He started with exhibitions; one of them, on the open space before the city hall, was specially successful and stirred general interest; when he noticed it he was so sorry that all the exhibition material should be condemned to decay in stores very soon, that within a few hours he made the city fathers found a permanent little museum on housing and city planning instead. A year or two later the scope was widened considerably; the city council, especially its treasurer Hugo Breitner, saw the possibilities of this type of adult education, and they supported the building up of an independent institute and its museum.

The rules and method were formed in the making of charts. One representation after the other had to be worked out, and every chart influenced the next one. To be understandable one has to use an understandable language, and every new chart added something to the new visual language, and then one has to keep to the rules which are slowly being formed. That may be similar with other living languages, and the Isotype language is still in the making.

Films were one of the mediums used at an early stage. There was a projector in the museum in the City Hall. Films were shown in connection with lantern slides and the charts. But very soon Otto Neurath wanted more: diagrams that move. About 1927 or 1928 the first experiments were made. The housing achievements were shown on a map: one after the other of the big buildings appeared, and the garden cities too, and then, to compare the area built upon with the central district, they moved together and covered just that district. Charts that show development of membership of some organization seemed to lend themselves to filmic representation. One member waved to a group, and after the other they moved along, lining up at the side of the first. Another little film is still vivid in my memory, it was about school feeding, the children holding their little plates, and the 'knoedel' (balls) flying from a big pot through the air on the plates. These were modest first attempts, but it was fun to look at them, and they were a kind of success even in the United States.

I think these little films were never shown in Britain. But Paul Rotha, who knew Otto Neurath's Modern man in the making and other publications with Isotype charts, saw the possibilities of Isotype diagrams in films even without knowing our little attempts. To explain blood groups, blood clotting, etc., one needs a well-elaborated symbolic representation, and Rotha asked us whether we should like to help him in that. Of course we did. And even before we began to work on Blood transfusion there had to be done a little film to appeal to the public to save A few ounces a day for salvage. Defeat tuberculosis was another film that followed, and then especially World of plenty.

Otto Neurath's plans were to go on with this type of work, to use the film as an effective tool of education for the future society. With Paul Rotha he founded a new organization UNIFILM to put these plans into effect. On his lines we are carrying on, as his pupils.

Otto Neurath saw films as one tool of visual education, and not even as the most important one. The trouble is that you cannot see it again whenever you want, and you cannot slow it down for your better understanding. Exhibitions and illustrated books should go with it. Films are perhaps better than anything to stimulate interest, but then one has to go on and think a bit more, and here other media come in. Though Otto Neurath himself was a great reader of books, visual aids ranked first for him in educational importance. He has explained that in his visual autobiography From hieroglyphics to Isotype which is to be available to the general public in the near future.


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