By Phil Wickham
The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture is a public museum and a research and scholarship facility at the University of Exeter. The Centre’s collections cover the long and broad history of the moving image, from the first experiments in projection to merchandise from the latest Hollywood blockbusters. At the heart of the museum is the Centre’s founding collection, the vast array of film memorabilia and material around pre (or proto) cinematic optical entertainments that was assembled over 30 years by the great filmmaker Bill Douglas and his friend Peter Jewell. Further artefacts have been added from a variety of donors ever since and we now have a collection that is unique in the field in the UK in its breadth and range.
What the very diverse set of artefacts held in the Centre share is a connection with the audience’s experience of the moving image – how this experience has developed over time and how the responses of spectators have defined the nature of moving image entertainment. Film and its precursors have often existed at the intersection of science and art – science and technology make possible the spectacle and wonder of the show and maintain the excitement of seeing images projected on a screen by creating new ways to dazzle and amaze the public.
Since the advent of cinema itself in the 1890s with the invention of Edison’s kinetoscope (we hold materials from its launch, the annotated memoir of its inventor W.K. L. Dickson, and its successor, the mutoscope or ‘What the Butler Saw’ machine) and especially the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe (we have one of the few surviving examples) technology has dictated the progress of film entertainment. The coming of sound brought its own anxieties as well as excitement and our holdings show that innovations such as colour or special effects were being developed as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. The current vogue for 3-D films is an echo of previous attempts to create three-dimensional spectacle in the 1950s and indeed as for back as the mid nineteenth century.
Bill Douglas became increasingly fascinated by the optical toys that preceded cinema and he and Peter Jewell acquired the extraordinary range of devices and attractions that form our lower gallery. New knowledge about the human eye, particularly persistence of vision and perspective, inform the rush of new amusements and inventions of the 18th and 19th centuries from kaleidoscopes to 3-D stereoscopes to toys like the praxinoscope and phenakistocope, where the use of mirrors creates an illusion of movement from still drawings – the beginnings of animation.
The oldest items in the museum are older still; books in the seventeenth century by Della Porta and Kircher that are the first descriptions and illustrations of a projected image in the west. Kircher’s image is the wrong way round – science is a process of discovery! – but the principles of projection were quickly co-opted for popular entertainment through the camera obscura and particularly the magic lantern. The lantern show was enormously popular for two centuries and its technology bears a close relationship to film projection – the different types of lanterns and of the slides that were shown demonstrate the inextricable links that bind science and culture together in moving image history.