With only a few months left at Exeter, I’ve been thinking about the things I’ll miss the most. And amongst the friends and societies, there’s something in the Old Library that’s very personal to me. It’s The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, one of the most valuable resources not just for the University, but for the cultural heritage of Exeter. As the first in a series of looks at local cinema culture, I thought it was only appropriate to visit the place that had perhaps the most profound impact on my studies of film whilst at Exeter. Named after Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas, director of seminal British films The Bill Douglas Trilogy and Comrades, the museum stems from the collection he and long-time friend Peter Jewell amassed over their lives.
“[Douglas and Jewell] put together this amazing collection of about 50,000 items across moving image history, they were real bargain hunters” explains museum curator Dr Phil Wickham, “and they always had the idea that this collection could form a museum eventually.” Following Douglas’s death in 1991, Jewell set about finding the collection a home, eventually settling on Devon, where he still lives to this day. Wickham explains: “we started acquiring the collection in about 1994, and then we opened our doors to the public in 1997, [adding to] the collection ever since. Peter’s still bringing us material, but we’ve also acquired material from all sorts of other people, whether that’s filmmakers, collectors, or a member of the public who’s found something in the attic.”
One of these recent acquisitions been has been the stills collection of continuity advisor Pamela Davies, featuring on set photography of huge stars like Judy Garland, as well as legendary filmmakers like Michael Powell. Another significant addition has been the Townly Cooke collection, featuring predominantly rare stills from the cinema of the 1910s-30s. It’s still expanding too, Wickham noting that they’re “still taking material, still growing fast.” At the time of writing this article, the museum houses over 80,000 artefacts.
On organising the artefacts for public display, Wickham notes; “obviously we can only display a small amount of the collection with the space that we have, but we try and use the artefacts to kind of work with each other to tell a story about the audience’s experience with the moving image over time. It’s not exactly chronological, it’s kind of thematic. Thematic with elements of chronology I suppose you’d say, telling that story.”
‘Being able to look at British fan magazines, strange optical toys and even production documents from filmmakers formed a perspective on Britain I’d never even considered before’
This variety of items across cinema history is what makes the museum so special. Walking in, you are presented with a range of different ideas about cinema across time. On the top floor, stars like Audrey Hepburn, and memorabilia from old cinemas grace the walls, accompanied by promotional material such as a dinosaur from Jurassic Park gifted to Richard Attenborough by Spielberg, or posters of vintage Dalek films. Wickham speaks of how Jewell often describes the collection as “rang[ing] from the sublime to the ridiculous”, and that’s absolutely why it’s so special. One can see innovations of visual culture, with panoramas, stereoscopes, or a stunning original praxinoscope (a spinning animation device). Then you can turn to find jigsaw with “a staggeringly bad picture of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, a jukebox and a knickerbocker glory all in one image”, one of Wickham’s favourite items because of what it says about “how people pick out things out from the past, how we use stardom.”
It’s not just its role as a museum that makes it such a singular place though. It’s also an important research facility, and a remarkable opportunity for students in Exeter. Studying ‘British Screens’, which uses the archive extensively, totally altered not just how I saw cinema, but history. Being able to look at British fan magazines, strange optical toys and even production documents from filmmakers like Derek Jarman formed a perspective on Britain I’d never even considered before. And the experience of curating my very own exhibition, handling artefacts to tell a story about cinema, was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done at the University, making one think beyond the usual essay structures when crafting academic work. Handling beautiful old Alice in Wonderland magic lantern slides is a cherished memory and to me, sums up the sense of discovery and wonder that education should be about.
‘This is a unique collection, no other university in the UK has anything remotely like this. So it’s a real advantage to Exeter students that they’ve got this to work with’
Wickham speaks of how over a hundred classes are taught a year using the collection, across “English, History, Drama, Art History, Sociology, Languages, a number of different disciplines. The collection can really add to people’s understanding of the subjects that they’re studying, [giving] a sense of how people might have been thinking at the time. And of course this is a unique collection, no other university in the UK has anything remotely like this. So it’s a real advantage to Exeter students that they’ve got this to work with.”
There are still opportunities for discovery too; he points out that “there are many parts of the collection that are under-researched – everything from sheet music to panoramas from the nineteenth century to all sorts of things. There are so many bits of the collection that could really enhance students’ work and study. Using this kind of material will get you better marks, because this is something that can go beyond the usual secondary sources and really add value to your research and study.”
‘It’s a people’s history of the moving image’
The same applies for the student volunteers working there; new volunteer Ellen Mitchell tells me that she “was always a fan of the cinema”, but “just looking at all the artefacts and having tangible products has been really enlightening” – she has recently helped organise a symposium on scriptwriting. Long term volunteer Laura Dennis also has had similar opportunities, cataloguing items and translating German and Spanish artefacts, which has consequently helped her in writing a dissertation on East German cinema. Indeed, many of these volunteers have gone on to have careers working in the culture sector, working at esteemed institutions like the BFI or even curating museums themselves.
This beautiful blend of academic facility and entertaining public exhibition makes the BDCM a place that focuses on the audiences just as much as those on screen – “a people’s history of the moving image” as Dr Wickham puts it. It’s a unique perspective of cinema – not necessarily about the stars, though they feature in abundance, but about how we see the stars. It’s truly something I’ll miss having twenty minutes from my doorstep. Nowhere else will I be able to sit in a reading room and have a look at unmade screenplays, or investigate some original production planning material from The Third Man.
Volunteer Holly Johnson sums up how significant the collection can be, explaining : “if I hadn’t had this resource, if I hadn’t had come here, my trajectory going forward, I suspect, would be completely different” – she cites how working with the facility had made her realise she wanted to do museum curation for a career. And it only looks like it’s going to improve, with Wickham stating “we’ve shown what we can offer, to both the university and the wider community, and now we think it’s time for the next phase, so we’re making the argument for the museum to be developed further”, hopefully expanding its space so more items can be gathered.
So even if you have a passing interest in cinema, go down, have a wander, explore the catalogue – it might change your perspective too.