A ticket to the dream palace: Teaching modern British cultural history at the Bill Douglas Centre by David Thackeray, Lecturer in History, University of Exeter
Ask any History student starting their second year at Exeter which module they find most daunting and they are likely to say ‘Doing History’. For the first time you are faced with the prospect of conducting an independent research project in which you have to fashion a question and select a range of different types of primary sources to consult. There were certainly some eyebrows raised when my students learnt that there were over 70,000 items to consult at the Bill Douglas Centre for Fiilm Studies. After all, many had not heard of the centre before moving to Exeter.
But why should this come as a surprise? Film-going was arguably the main leisure activity in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century with cinemas according weekly attendances of nearly twenty million during the 1930s. But film’s importance went beyond these mere figures, it was arguably the main medium for the development of popular culture. As the resources of the BDC vividly demonstrate, film generated an enormous range of ephemera: cigarette cards of movie stars, fan literature, magazines, postcards, and innumerable adverts for fashion products. The current ‘Film and the rise of female consumerism’ exhibition, curated by History students, provides an excellent introduction to the ways in which cinema pervaded everyday life and influenced social identities in the golden age of film culture during the 1920 and 1930s.
Teaching at the BDC provides a unique window on these lost worlds and an opportunity for students to consult a wide range of sources which they are unlikely to uncover elsewhere. Moreover, it is enormously fun. Most students have seen and enjoyed The Artist, but at the BDC they can learn about the silent-age stars who inspired the film, such as Clara Bow, the rags-to-riches ‘It’ girl who came to fame after winning a magazine talent contest.
To date, I have organised seminars at the BDC focusing on gender roles in inter-war Britain and social change in the 1960s, but there are a range of other potential uses for the collections beyond the confines of British history, as evidenced by recent student-led exhibitions focused on African-Americans in film and the depiction of Chinese culture in cinema.
Moreover, being the Exeter History department’s Employability officer over the last year has made me more aware of the value that the BDC holds in providing students opportunities to develop transferrable skills beyond the confines of the undergraduate curriculum. As well as organising an exhibition, and undertaking independent research projects, students from my course have volunteered at the BDC, cataloguing incoming items, supporting school visits, and contributing to this blog!
The BDC is only part of a vibrant film culture in Exeter promoted by organisations such as the Bike Shed Theatre, Campus Cinema, the Exeter Phoenix, Ignite Festival and the Picturehouse. After a successful start, I hope to see next year’s group of students use this blog as a means to talk about their experiences using the BDC’s collections and to discuss their research projects.