Visit the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum this summer

Summer is here, and term is nearly out. For the readers of this blog I guess this means a few different things. Some of you are packing your bags for Bologna right this minute. Me too, as soon I finish writing this blogpost. Apart from that, the long summer days send a signal to your brain that in one scenario screams: holiday! Or in another, it whispers tactfully: time to get that project done.

Myself, I am very much in the second boat. I have a book to research and write BP (Before Pordenone). More on that anon. But the Silent London blog is about unity and harmony and what not, so I have a recommendation for all of you, whether your summer is all about reading on the beach or at a library desk.

It’s one of my favourite spots in the country: the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, in Exeter, Devon. It’s an absolute trove of cinema treasure, and it opened 25 years ago this year. The small but surprisingly capacious museum is filled with fascinating objects from the history of the movies, items that tell a story about how films were made, watched, enjoyed and remembered. From an original 1895 Lumière Cinèmatographe and the camera that likely filmed The Battle of the Somme to a pair of Marlene Dietrich’s glittering shoes. To Mabel Normand’s card from Valentino’s funeral and a mountain of Charlie Chaplin memorabilia to ephemera from modern Hollywood blockbusters, and the largest Disney collection in the country.

There is a mightily impressive pre-cinema collection too, dating back to the 17th century, including magic lanterns, shadow puppets, rare books and optical toys. The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum is all about the long, long history of the moving image.

The museum sprang from the collection of filmmaker Bill Douglas and his friend Peter Jewell, who were discerning hunter-gatherers of cinema memorabilia. It has since grown with more donations from Jewell over the years and from filmmakers, critics and collectors. One recent donation comprised a magnificent set of publicity stills from British silent films. You may be able to guess whose generosity that was.

You can explore the collection here. Just know this, there are 1,000 items on display out of a collection of more than 85,000. No other cinema museum in the country can match the Bill Douglas for breadth and accessibility. It’s a fabulous place to browse, and an even better place to ask questions – you’re bound to get an interesting answer.

So there’s a recommendation for the holidaymakers, breezing in smelling of sunscreen and Magnums. But if your immediate plans are more scholarly, don’t forget about the Bill Douglas, either. The museum is also an archive, with a remarkably comprehensive catalogue of books, papers, magazines, press books and other documents – including the archives of several prominent British filmmakers. I was able to prepare throughly for an event on Mai Zetterling’s Scrubbers (1982) there earlier in the year and just yesterday I was in the archive researching my new project – which included looking at some very precious material relating to one of the most debonair stars of mid-century British cinema. Yes, I do like being mysterious…

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, Exeter.

If you think they may have something you are interested in, do ask. They likely have more. Book your research session here. And if Exeter is not exactly on your doorstep, do look out for the post-Covid revival of the annual stipend system, in which you can apply for some funds to support your research visit. Here’s an old page explaining how that worked.

There’s much more to this wonderful place than you might imagine.

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