Returning from a trip to Devon recently we stopped off at the University of Exeter to visit the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum (part of the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, as a sign inside pronounced). Despite it being a Saturday in the holiday we were amazed that we were the only visitors during the entire two hours we spent there. The research centre was shut on a weekend, so no curators were around, but the museum itself is open seven days a week, other than bank holidays and between Christmas and New Year. Admission is free. As it was a vacation weekend we were able to park near the front door of the building in which the centre is situated, but I got the impression parking can be a problem during term-time.
Based on the collection put together by filmmaker Bill Douglas and his friend Peter Jewell over a thirty-year period, the museum has on show a small selection, about 1,000, of the 75,000 objects held by the university devoted to the moving image. They include equipment, posters, photographs, books, magazines, toys, publicity ephemera – in fact anything connected with going to the pictures. As well as covering the history of cinema, there is a great deal on pre-cinema, including optical toys, shadow puppets and magic lanterns. It’s not all British and American; there is an international, or at least European, element.
Split into two main galleries, with extra cases before you go in for temporary exhibitions, the smaller ground floor room one enters first is devoted to cinema post-1910, and the much larger downstairs room to pre- and early cinema. Thus visitors will tend to look at the more modern material before the older, rather than follow it in chronological order. That on pre- and early cinema is grouped into peep shows, optical illusions, the magic lantern, panoramas, ‘the beginnings of film’, and so on. Eadweard Muybridge has a case to himself. Post-1910 cases cover filmmakers, British cinema, cinemagoing, animation, Charlie Chaplin, stars, Hollywood and blockbusters. One would not expect much in the way of television, but the temporary exhibition, ‘Space, Astronomy and the Moving Image’, included Dr Who and the Star Trek series.
In addition to the cases there were objects on tables for visitors to try, such as replica praxinoscopes, zoetropes, stereoscopes and cards, and flick books. Artefacts were well presented, within the constraints imposed by limited space and the necessity for low lighting, though often descriptions, particularly dates, were scanty. However, it was possible to borrow a copy of the Bill Douglas Centre Museum Guide (2010) from reception to learn more about the collection.
The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum opened in 1997 with the Douglas/Jewell donation, but there have been additions by others since (including Derek Jarman’s producer James Mackay, whom I have had the pleasure of interviewing), and we noticed something from the British Film Institute’s old Museum of the Moving Image collection. It is a shame the BFI has dispersed objects from MOMI, which closed in 1999, but this is a good place for them to reside, though Exeter’s restricted space means they can only display a fraction of what could be seen at the BFI. I visited MOMI several times and, while I loved it, I was always frustrated that the curators failed to rotate exhibits. I wonder if the same might be true of the Bill Douglas Museum. If so, as it is much smaller, it will repay repeated visits less. Of course, all the items listed on the museum’s website can be examined in the centre’s reading room.
While researchers will see the museum as an adjunct to the research centre, it is a valuable destination for the general public interested in this important part of our cultural heritage. Those concerned primarily with the cinema in the south-west will find that the region is not prioritised (the South West Film & Television Archive is based in Plymouth), rather it celebrates cinema, its precursors and its culture, in the round. Thanks to Douglas, Jewell and the other donors, and not least to the University of Exeter, it is a tremendously enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.