Imperial History and Documentary Culture at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

David Thackeray, Angela Banks, Kelly Cave, Jessica Deters, Caroline Menu, Daniel Scherer, Xiaohan Wang, and Henrik Zimmermann
International Summer School 2014, University of Exeter

Cross-Posted from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

bill douglas 1In July 2014 the University of Exeter ran its second annual summer school connected to Imperial and Global History: Britain and the making of the modern world with students from Canada, China, India, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the USA. In this blog post students reflect on their experience working with Dr. David Thackeray from the History Department to explore archives connected to imperial history and documentary culture from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter. The museum is home to one of the largest collections of material on the moving image in Britain, with a collection of over 75,000 items. The class was split into three groups and given a variety of film and visual culture sources to explore, then asked to record their reactions to those they found of most interest.

One group chose to discuss ‘The All Red Route Round the World’ (EXE BD 36745), an accompaniment to a series of lantern slide lectures produced in the early twentieth century depicting a variety of views across the British Empire. They note that it was a long-standing practice for British imperial territory belonging to be marked on a map in red. ‘This small pamphlet focuses on the idea that the world could be traversed without ever leaving the Empire. The author seems to brag about the fact that the sun never sets on British-controlled territory. Upon examination of the materials, we came to the conclusion that the lectures were primarily produced for entertainment purposes. The lantern slides boast about the scale of the Empire and introduce readers to the various cultures and peoples encompassed in British territory. These lectures may also serve to shock the public with their depictions of tribal, naked and supposedly less ‘civilised’ peoples’ living under the British flag’.

Bill Douglas 2The documentary film of the ‘Cape to Cairo’ trans-Africa exhibition of 1924 provided the focus for the second group, who explored the various means by which the film was publicised including a book (EXE BD 11598) and cinema souvenir pamphlet (EXE BD 18477). Xiaohan Wang notes how such documentaries often focused on the exoticism of African life and its distance from the culture of the metropole and the British traveller. ‘Pictures in the booklet document indigenous Africans’ daily life, contrasting it with that of the travellers’ who commonly came from elite backgrounds. The well-dressed Europeans are commonly placed in the centre of the accompanying pictures surrounded by Africans living in supposedly primitive conditions’.

bill douglas 3Our final sources for discussion are The Mystic Orient (EXE BD 00025), a booklet produced to promote a documentary produced by the anthropologist Dr. George Dorsey depicting his explorations in Japan, China, India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), a journey he claims reached “parts of the world where white men have seldom, if ever, visited”, and Through Romantic India (EXE BD 18476) a booklet which accompanied a documentary film and lecture from 1922 by renowned American Journalist Lowell Thomas. The students discussed the problems of whether we can view these sources as indicators of an Orientalist mindset. This approach seems to be more apparent in the latter booklet which ‘clearly deals with cultural and racial differences from a hierarchical perspective. Indian culture is depicted as brutal and backwards, but also romantic, as opposed to ‘civilised’ Britain’. The booklet includes a picture of two Indian men sitting on a needle bed, and has the following jaunty description: ‘Holy men ready or a siesta on their beds of sharp iron spikes’.

The class provided students with an opportunity to explore the insights that documentary film culture can provide into Britons’ historical interaction with Empire. While their conclusions give a rather sobering insight into aspects of imperial culture which bring to mind the old adage- ‘it’s a good thing the sun never set on the empire- because the Brits clearly can’t be trusted at night’- students appreciated what for many of them was their first opportunity to work in an archive.

 The museum has a rich collection of material on the British Empire, as optical entertainment was frequently used as a propaganda source and to bring the wider world to the British public. It is used frequently for teaching in History and English at the University.

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