The Bill Douglas Centre – A New Digital Partnership for Adam Matthew

31 August 2011

As one of the ‘newbies’ of the editorial team at Adam Matthew, my first research expedition took me on a fascinating tour through the archives of the Bill Douglas Centre at Exeter University. Along with Senior Development Editor Martha Fogg and Project Editor Beth Hall, I was there to help assess and select material for an upcoming resource on early moving pictures and cinema; an extension of our already successful Victorian Popular Culture resource. This exciting new project is due for publication in late 2012.

Magic Lantern

The Centre (for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture) is a tribute to British film maker, Bill Douglas, and the collection of approximately 50,000 items he put together with friend and colleague, Peter Jewell, which was donated to the university after Bill’s death in 1991. With contributions from various other writers, producers and directors such as Roy Fowler, Don Boyd, Bob Dunbar, James Mackay and Gavrik Losey, the collection’s 18,000 books gives Exeter the country's largest university library on cinema. The Centre serves as both a public museum and academic research centre holding “one of Britain's largest public collections of books, prints, artefacts and ephemera relating to the history and prehistory of cinema”. It is this captivating collection of artefacts and various ephemera, from ticket stubs and postcards to early film posters and programmes that makes this collection so unique.

As a useful introduction to the collection we were taken on a tour of the museum exhibition by the Centre’s extremely well-informed curator, Phil Wickham, which illustrated the development of optical recreation and popular entertainment from the late 18th century to Classical Hollywood. Whilst this really was a very educational introduction, helping to orientate us within the social and historical context of early moving pictures, what this exercise inadvertently revealed was that three grown women can find century-old optical illusions and toys (made for children) just as fascinating as their intended market!

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As the chronological tour progressed, we were shown (and allowed to play with!) shadow plays and ombrescopes, optical illusions and kaleidoscopes, dioramas, panoramas, peep-shows, stereoscopic views, telescopic views, mutoscopes and magic lanterns. Of the entire collection we were just as mesmerised by the mutoscope, “a device which used the principle of a flick book to show an animated view”, as the tiny hand-held flick books themselves showing ballerinas dancing, or men boxing in a ring. Although there is no doubt that the collection appealed to the 8-year-old in me, it was the impressive range and preservation of these innovative and creative devices that allowed us to reimagine the impact of early film on ordinary people at the turn of the century. This resource will undoubtedly appeal not just to the serious academic scholar, but also to those with a more of a recreational interest in early film and Victorian amusements.

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The process of assessing and selecting material for the resource was just as absorbing. Within the hundreds of programmes and early film souvenirs, we would every now and then discover a personal note written inside the front cover describing a night out at the picture show or even acting as an invite for a date. There was also a letter from an author congratulating a director on the moving picture adaptation of his novel but excusing himself from the opening show due to a severe cold.

The captivating subject matter of the collection was at times counter-productive to our task. I had to constantly remind myself that I was there to just assess the material, not get lost in the content, but it was increasingly difficult with such a wealth of interesting pieces. I am glad I got to be part of this process and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Having seen first-hand what is to be only a small part of the final product, I cannot wait to contribute to its development and see how it will be translated digitally for our users.