A Day at the Archives… Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter

Amelia Seely, University of Exeter

28 January 2020


Bill Douglas had a unique scriptwriting style of poetic prose and a filmmaking style that has been compared to European Art filmmakers such as Robert Bresson and Luis Buñuel. Douglas’s influence is discernible in the works of filmmakers such as Lenny Abrahamson, Peter Mullan and Lynne Ramsay. His films – The Bill Douglas Trilogy (1972, 1973, 1978) and Comrades (1987) – have repeatedly been praised by critics and have regularly made appearances in top British Films lists. For example, in the Time Out poll of industry figures The Trilogy was number 27 in a poll of the best 100 British films of all time. In 2019, My Childhood was included in Little White Lies 100 list of Best British films. As well as being a filmmaker, writer and actor, Douglas was also an ardent and devoted collector of cinema ephemera. He and his friend Peter Jewell amassed one of the largest collections of moving image memorabilia in Europe. Over several decades the pair collected anything relating to film culture and history, and it is this which forms the heart of The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum’s collection.

The museum is both an accredited public museum and an academic research facility, the rich resources of which are used not only by researchers, but also in the classroom. The extraordinary collection is used for a diverse range of subjects, including Film Studies, English, History, Theology, Geography and even a number of Science disciplines. The collection holds over 80,000 items dating from the seventeenth century to the present day, covering all aspects of cinema, pre-cinema and the history of the moving image. In short, the collection is incredibly diverse and provides a totally unique and varied experience of the moving image.

My own research project is concerned with the British film industry in the 1970s and 1980s and looks closely at the production of Bill Douglas’s films as a case study of an artist filmmaker working during this time. Along with the large assembly of cinema memorabilia, the museum houses Douglas’s Working Papers which were donated by Peter Jewell 2014-2016. These are an incredibly rich and valuable collection of materials that also include production materials from Douglas’s colleagues such as Script Supervisor, Penny Eyles; Editor Mick Audsley and Production Designer, Michael Pickwoad.

Along with Bill Douglas’s working papers, the museum holds several other archival collections which have been generously donated by key figures in British cinema. These archives have a strong emphasis upon modern British independent filmmaking and include the collections of: Don Boyd, Bob (Robert) Dunbar, Ossie Morris, James Mackay, Gavrik Losey, Anthony Attard and Peter Cotes.

The museum is located in the Old Library building on the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus. The museum shares resources with the University of Exeter’s Special Collections, including some staffing, as well as spaces such as the Reading Room. The online catalogue lists the items that are held in the museum and you can create a collection of items online that can be retrieved for consultation in the reading room when you visit. In some cases, there are images to accompany the description of the item, however, to see most items they will need to be consulted in the Reading Room.

The reading room is comfortable and well-lit and working there has often provided me with many great opportunities to meet visiting international researchers. There are lockers available just outside the reading room where you can store your personal belongings. Items allowed inside the reading room are laptops, phones, notebooks and pencils and although the archive does allow photographs for personal use, usual guidelines of up to 5% of published works are followed. Permission from donors are required to take pictures of archive material.

The museum has two Galleries which provide a great way to spend your lunchtime or a break from research. The Upper Gallery looks more at the experience of going to the cinema and includes all sorts of objects and ephemera such as beautiful issues of Picturegoer, a lovely display of Chaplin materials (Chaplin was a special favourite of Bill’s), to Harry Potter lunchboxes and an R2-D2 shaped soap. The Lower Gallery, on the ground floor, displays an incredible collection of early and pre-cinema machinery and objects, such as one of two hundred Lumiere Cinematographe machines ever made or the camera on which we believe Battle of the Somme (1916) was filmed. It is an absolute treasure trove and a delight to explore. The museum galleries are free and open to the public between 10am-5pm seven days a week (except between Christmas and New Year). The curatorial team are available Monday to Friday and research facilities are open 10am – 5pm by prior appointment, except for bank holidays. You are asked to give at least one working days’ notice of your visit.

There is ramp access to the museum, a lift between the two gallery spaces and a disabled parking space outside of the museum. A great resource is that if you are arriving by train into Exeter St David’s train station then you can catch the University’s free minibus service. The collection point is at the right-hand side of the exit as you leave the train station. There is no signage, but you will probably see a small queue forming just beyond the taxi rank. These buses run throughout the year except from bank holidays and closure days and there is an early morning and evening shuttle service.

I am very fortunate that I am based at the University of Exeter so I am able to visit this fantastic resource regularly as well as use materials from the collection for my own teaching. It is an invaluable resource for academic research as well as wonderful place to visit.

For further details about the shuttle service: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/campushelp/minibus/

To search the collection and to find out more about the museum: http://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/

A map to find the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum:


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Dr Phil Wickham, Mike Rickard, and Gemma Poulton for their assistance.


Amelia Seely is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Exeter. Her thesis – ‘Creativity and Constraint in the British Film Industry’ – draws on the work of the Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas, and utilises his Working Papers held at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. She is also the Founder of F | Screens – a monthly film event that celebrates women filmmakers and screenwriters. Follow her on Twitter @amelia_seely.


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