The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum for Historians by Emily Vine

I’m currently researching items in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum collection which could be of particular use to historians. I’ve come across a wide range of material which extends far beyond what you might expect to find in a museum of cinema, and have tried to identify how such items could be relevant to a broader range of historical themes and approaches than may be immediately obvious.

I began by looking at the collection of stereoscope cards; cards with two slightly different photographs printed next to each other, which when viewed through a stereoscope create a 3D image. Although they are held in the museum for their association with the development of the moving image, the pictures themselves comprise a wide range of subjects and have historical value beyond cinema or cultural history. I’ve been particularly focusing on a set of stereo cards depicting colonial life in India in the early 1900s, and also several sets which depict scenes from the First World War. The images of India are interesting because they were produced by a British company to demonstrate the ‘positive’ impact of colonial rule, and portray an extremely generalised and condescending view of Indian people. The images of the First World War were also intended to be viewed by the British public and consequently present a nationalistic view of the achievements of the British army; glorifying the events of the trenches and emphasising the bravery and camaraderie of the soldiers.
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I then moved on to look through a large number of nineteenth century guidebooks, social histories and periodicals which provide invaluable insights into Victorian life. They are part of the collection because they make reference to popular culture through the mention of cinemas, music halls or peep shows, but they contain a wealth of other information which would be very useful primary source material for social historians. Henry Mayhew’s four volume work London Labour and the London Poor proved to be an extremely valuable source of both statistical and anecdotal information about the lives of the working classes, with particular emphasis upon the ‘underworld’: the criminals, prostitutes, and street beggars upon which much of our conceptions of the ‘bleak’ Victorian age are based. The collection of London guidebooks proved to be equally as informative; providing a wealth of information about popular tourist sites, admission prices, public transport, popular recreation and leisure activities, and important public buildings and institutions, as well as maps of London as it once looked.

Those unfamiliar with the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum may be surprised at the extensive amount of pre-cinema material within the collection. Amongst much else there are numerous maps of Exeter and London from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, satirical / political cartoons, ephemera relating to panoramas, and a large number of eighteenth century prints, including my personal favourite, a print of a Hogarth engraving of Southwark fair.
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The appeal of these items extends far beyond their original association with the development of the moving image; they are artefacts which would be of great interest to social, cultural, political and even military historians.
Film magazines such as The Pictures and The Picturegoer are extremely useful for providing an insight into popular culture, leisure activities and social aspiration in the twentieth century. They demonstrate what a key role film played in the lives of ordinary people; both how film reflected social concerns and current affairs, and also how people reacted to film and aspired to have or be what was depicted on the big screen. They are invaluable resources for social or cultural historians, and those looking at concepts of gender, class, consumerism and leisure. The adverts in these magazines are particularly interesting; they are often targeted at particular ideals of masculinity and femininity which tells us much about societal norms. From a modern perspective it’s interesting to note how little celebrity magazines have progressed in a hundred years; when looking through the oldest film magazines of 1911 you can still recognise the early obsession with the beauty of film stars, and tips on how readers can look or behave like their idols.

Other interesting periodicals in the collection include Cassell’s Popular Educator and Living London. Cassell’s Popular Educator is a periodical containing miscellaneous articles of general knowledge; it was created in 1852 to allow the working classes, and those with limited access to formal education, to instruct themselves on a range of subjects, and consequently better themselves. It contains articles on English, History, Philosophy, Languages, Business and Commerce, Art, Music, Science, Mathematics, and was called by one commentator “a school, a library and a university.” Living London is an illustrated periodical with miscellaneous articles and stories about life in London at the turn of the century; giving an invaluable insight into a diverse range of social and cultural practices.
I found it interesting looking through the large collection of publicity programmes for documentary film showings and lantern slide lectures. They demonstrate how cinema and the moving image were used to inform as well as entertain, particularly by presenting to the audience images of a place or event they would otherwise never have access to. The subject matters of these documentary films and lantern slide lectures vary greatly, but they are often concerned with ‘exotic’ countries, far corners of the British Empire, the royal family or the First World War. The way in which these subjects were presented to the British public, or were considered worthy of widespread public attention, tells us much about conceptions of national identity, and attitudes towards racial or cultural difference.

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This project has emphasised that the usefulness and interest of the collection extends far beyond its primary purpose as a centre for the history of cinema. My research has focused upon items which would be particularly useful to history students, but the artefacts in the collection are relevant to a wide range of subjects and approaches. As part of this project I’ve updated many descriptions in the museum’s online catalogue at http://billdouglas.ex.ac.uk/eve/search.asp , so that many items should be more easily searchable through the use of broader keywords such as “British Empire” or “First World War”. The full list of items I’ve identified and made notes on should be distributed around the history department, and also be made accessible to history students via ELE. This list includes items which are directly relevant to a number of undergraduate history modules, as well as items which could be valuable primary sources for research projects such as Doing History or dissertations. I hope that this will make more students aware of the wide range of resources available to them at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum and also make it easier for them to search and access the collection.

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A ticket to the dream palace: Teaching modern British cultural history at the Bill Douglas Centre

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.

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   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. 

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 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.