Elliana Jay takes us on a tour of Britain’s best-kept cinematic secret, Exeter’s Bill Douglas Cinema Museum.

What do Charlie Chaplin and Bambi have in common? They both find a home in The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. A world away from chaotic movie sets, dazzling red carpets and booming cinemas lies a film fan’s treasure trove at the University of Exeter: an archive bursting with more than 85,000 materials of moving-image history. From shadow puppets to soap – if it has the remotest connection to cinema, you’ll find it here. Across two public galleries, 1,000 of these oddities spill out into glass cabinets, with the rest viewable by appointment.

I regularly weaved through these pillars of cinema history as a student volunteer, some new treasure catching my eye each time. These materials transformed my idea of film, flipping that same optical illusion on its head to reveal a startlingly different picture. The museum presents a unique experience of cinema beyond – and before – the screen. This is a history with as many twists and explosions as your favourite blockbuster. I caught up with the Curator, Dr Phil Wickham, and ask him what is special about the museum.

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“I would claim that we are the leading film museum in the UK because we’ve got the broadest range of material and we are the most accessible. We tell the whole story of moving images, from the 17th century up to the present day. Our collections are based around how people have reacted to moving images and how that’s informed their lives. It’s a people’s history of moving images,” argues Phil.

Collection

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum is the legacy left behind by British filmmaker Bill Douglas (The Bill Douglas Trilogy, Comrades). Together with his friend and fellow film enthusiast Peter Jewell, they started collecting film memorabilia in the early 60s.

“When Peter realised his mother had thrown all his old film annuals to a jumble sale, he and Bill started trying to recreate his childhood collection,” Phil smiles. “They weren’t rich men, but they were very canny, and in those days you could find some of these things quite cheaply if you knew what you were looking for.”

Peter donated the 50,000 materials they’d amassed to the University of Exeter following Bill’s death in the early 90s. They opened to the public in 1997 and the collection has continued to grow since.

“They always had the idea it could be something they could share with other people, that it could found a museum,” Phil says.

Museums need your support as much as cinemas at this time. In a digital and distanced world, The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum provides a refreshing opportunity to witness real, tangible objects that give life to moviegoing memories. These are items recognisable as the creepy clutter in your grandparents’ loft, the childhood litter that you regrettably threw away, and the forgotten keepsakes in your bottom drawer.

But there are also less familiar objects: the ghosts of the moving-image past. Phil says, “People are often surprised to discover that some things you might think of as modern concepts have actually been around for centuries. Take 3D, for example: stereoscopes displayed 3D images in the mid- 19th century long before film. And things like virtual reality are not that dissimilar from the panoramas that came around at the end of the 18th century.”

The displays are truly expansive, often with jarringly juxtaposed items. There are stills of lost silents, and there are terrifying busts of Marilyn Monroe. There are hand-painted lantern slides, and there’s a Heinz label advertising Shrek-shaped pasta.

“Peter often calls it a mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime. So, we have some things that are really beautiful and unique, and we have some things that are clearly everyday items that were designed to be disposable,” Phil explains. “But if you hang on to the ridiculous, it can tell you as much about moving-image history as the sublime.”

Pieces

With so much variety, I wonder if Phil can pick a favourite item. He has several, but one jumps out. “I have a real fondness for a jigsaw from the late 1990s showing a really crazy composite picture of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, a tiger cub, a jukebox and a knickerbocker glory – a weird fever dream of 50s America for millennium Europe.”

Such materials intercept multiple histories and arguably speak volumes more than the films. For example, what does a pair of Marilyn Monroe boxers tell us that Some Like It Hot may not…?

“It became apparent very quickly in cinema history that seeing the films was not enough for people. They wanted to explore that relationship further by buying a magazine or making their own scrapbooks. What these kinds of materials do is put the film in relation to the world in which it was created and the world in which we’re seeing it now. The film is something enclosed – if you put that in relation to these things, it becomes part of something much bigger,” Phil says.

“There are great stories and great sensations, not just on the screen, but in understanding society and ourselves more through the materials of film history,” he argues. Film stories will forever be our stories, and The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum drives this home.

When lockdown rules allow, you can gain free entry to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, or experience the collections remotely via its website and social media pages.

Address: Prince of Wales Road, Exeter, EX4 4SB.
Web: www.bdcmuseum.org.uk
Twitter: @bdcmuseum

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