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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The Lanternist by Patrick Crawford

 ‘Art and Film have a troubled and incestuous history’ writes Douglas Fogle in his article Cinema is Dead, Long Live the Cinema (Frieze Magazine, Issue 29, 1996). Fogle’s article looks at the relationship between Art and Cinema while reviewing a series of exhibitions that have taken place to mark one hundred years of filmmaking including an exhibition entitled ‘Spellbound’ at the Hayward Gallery. The exhibition attempts to fuse the mediums of installation art and film together by inviting artists and filmmakers alike to try their hand at crossover projects with contributors including Damien Hirst, Douglas Gordon (with his piece “24 hour Psycho”), Terry Gilliam and Steve McQueen. Fogle is less than complimentary about the success of these projects and insinuates that the increasing importance and seductiveness of cinema has meant that the medium already plays a major role in contemporary art and that crossover projects that attempt to glorify this importance suffer as a consequence. There is a strong argument that contemporary film is the essential medium for creative expression in our culture today. Indeed Fogle states quite candidly that a lot of static art has paled in comparison with the dazzling visual edifices created by filmmakers such as Orson Welles. ‘The world has rocked to the rhythm of 24 frames per second for over a century and hasn’t looked back’ he says. However, film still remains a difficult medium to master. Fogle points out that there are apparent gaps between the moving image and static art and that ‘visual artists trip over cinematic land-mines when crossing into film’. Film, Fogle maintains, is still alarmingly evasive despite its alluring qualities.

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Promotional leaflet for ‘Spellbound: art and film’ at the Hayward Gallery (EXEBD 41644)

It is interesting comparing this article (written in 1996) with Christopher Kenneally’s 2013 documentary Side by Side, which looks at the advent of digital film images and the decline of celluloid. The exhibitions the article reviews seek to highlight how far film has come since its invention in the 1890s and the important and dominant role it plays in contemporary art. However, film itself has developed remarkably since its centenary celebrations. The introduction of digital film has begun to supersede its photochemical counterpart. This is due in part to its accessibility. Side by Side seeks to illuminate this transition in optical media by interviewing many of the world’s leading filmmakers and cinematographers and noting their preferred methods. It is clear to many though, even to those filmmakers who prefer traditional methods of film practice, that digital is fast becoming the dominant medium. Accessibility is democracy, the film points out, and democracy is becoming vital to the arts.

Visual art is as unsentimental as the high street in many respects. Nostalgia is saved for the museums, the galleries and the antique auction houses. The supersedure of art forms and the beguiling nature of more accessible optical media is the subject of my short film, The Lanternist. Lanternists, who were sometimes referred to as Savoyards or Galantys, were traditional small-time visual entertainers in the early 19th century. They would travel between villages and towns putting on magic lantern displays in public places or in the houses of the wealthy. However, their trade began to decline towards the end of the century, due in part to the mass-production of magic lanterns and slides which made it possible for families to organise private lantern displays in their own homes.

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Alex Norton as The Lanternist in Bill Douglas’ ‘Comrades’ (EXEBD 60820)

 

Partly inspired by Alex Norton’s brilliant turn as an itinerant lanternist in Bill Douglas’ film ‘Comrades’, my short film portrays the galanty in a less than fortuitous light. However, unlike Bill’s Lanternist, who through the course of ‘Comrades’ takes on many different guises in order to tell the parallel stories of the history of pre-cinema and the struggles of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and who eventually appears as a successful showman in the final reel, the Lanternist in my film is tortured by the redundancy of his trade and desperately wanders the fringes of society searching for an audience. He engages in crazed and ritualistic dances as part of a defunct show that he performs to no one. He cuts a wraith-like figure walking a lonely pilgrimage. Along the way he finds discarded objects that reflect his own futility. I was inspired largely by Bill’s use of the Lanternist as a metaphorical figure in order to give his film a more harrowing visual, cultural and social context. In the final shot of my film I have included a Mutoscope display, that can be found in the Centre. The Mutoscope, like the Magic Lantern before it are all part of the progression in optical entertainment that has led to contemporary cinema as we know it today (my film is shot in digital). We should celebrate this progression, and indeed the progression of all art forms, and while innovation may be ephemeral it is vital to our culture. However, there are many Lanternists left behind along the way.

 

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Magic Lantern Slides: Bluebeard (EXEBD 64515)

 

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Image from inside The Bill Douglas Centre’s Mutoscope (EXE BD 69076)