Our latest blog comes from stipend holder Clare Hunter. Clare is an author who has written extensively on crafting, and she came down to visit us from Scotland to explore our collection of optical toys. You can find out more about her work here.


I am in the process of writing a book about small delights, those things that entertain and divert us, things that people often make at home which are rarely documented, things like paper boats, snowmen, kites and sandcastles. One of my chapters explores the wonders of optical devices and, while researching it, I chanced upon the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum and its amazing collection of optical printed ephemera and artefacts. It is one thing to see images of what you are interested in books or online, quite another to have the opportunity to see them in the flesh and to handle them yourself. When I learnt that the University of Exeter, with the Museum, offers a stipend for travel and accommodation to researchers to enable them to peruse the collection, I send off an application with alacrity and am delighted when I hear that I have been successful.

So it is, on a chilly April day, that I find myself in the green-leafed campus of the university, camera and notepad in hand. The museum’s curator, Dr Phil Wickham, is there to greet me and, having already had notice of the sixty and more items I want to study, has arranged for most to be laid out ready for me in the research room. Others are available for viewing in the museum’s permanent display.

A pencil borrowed; I find a place in the quiet of the study room as a trolley of optical marvels is wheeled to my side. I take up the first of my chosen artefacts, Tim’s Telescopic View (EXEBD 69415 see featured image), created to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II. It is a paper peepshow, a small, folded, rectangle which, like a concertina, stretches out to offer a perspective scene of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. There, in magnificent,  illustrated, glory, are the long red banners that flanked the Mall, the phalanxes of servicemen who corralled the flag waving crowds, the Queen’s golden coach leaving Buckingham Palace led by eight splendid white horses, all shrunk to the size of an A5 envelope. Yet its diminution, as I peer at the scene through a small aperture, only serves to heighten its detail. Made as a souvenir, it truly captures the excitement of the day albeit in miniature. And it is captivating to peep into a past world, to have an exactitude of history replicated in such a charming way, because a peepshow is a private thrill, your eye tightly focused on a perspective view that, literally, unfolds before you. It encourages the excitement of the voyeur.

I pick up an early kaleidoscope, heavy, solid, its casing painted in black lacquer. To actually handle an object is to feel the heft of it, to witness its patina of age, to sense what it must have been like for those others, more than a century ago, to lift it to their eye in expectation of revelation, of a new visual experience. The functionality of the design of this one, the severity of its black exterior, convinces me that it was not conceived as a toy but as a scientific curiosity for adults to exclaim and ponder over. to share in its novelty. I take it up and squint through its small aperture. Inside its glass top are tiny shards of vividly coloured glass but, surprisingly, amongst them, are two yellow translucent capsules and, as I turn the top, I see that they have been purposefully included to ensure that the patterns the kaleidoscope forms are framed, controlled, by these two pieces. The other small fragments of colour are forced to group around them, clustering about them in diverse ways to suggest a more controlled pattern, despite being randomly produced. This is a nuance that I would not have known about if I had not been able to manipulate the device for myself. It provides an insight into the Victorian interest in the kaleidoscopic phenomena. It was not just symmetry that was being explored but also balance. It was not just what it could show, but how it could be shown that mattered, not just optical purpose but visual potential.

Next is a zoetrope (EXEBD 69011), an early experimentation with moving pictures when a rotating slatted drum, containing a strip of sequenced illustrated movement, is twirled to provide the spectator with the illusion of the animation of whatever is depicted. This one, like the kaleidoscope, is painted black but, unlike it, it has been decorated in paper scraps of pansies and pretty bonneted girls. It evokes a Victorian parlour, the family gathered round of an evening enthralled to watch a clown juggle, a couple dance, boys play leapfrog. In a century that moved from seeing the people and places of the world only in still pictures to accessing it in motion, such devices were revolutionary. And this one is well used, taken out over and over again, as a marvel of ingenuity.


On and on I go, looking at moveable paper novelties – pop ups, dissolving pictures, dioramas – discovering the effectiveness of white silhouettes, the astonishing verisimilitude of expansive panoramas, the mysteries of Chinese magic mirrors, revisiting a time when visual exploration was an exciting way to gather knowledge and vicariously experience the wider world.

I visit the museum itself, crammed with fascination. There is so much here to see but I eschew the temptation of lingering over the tempting relics of early cinematic evolution and descend to the lower gallery where a plethora of other delights awaits. There is almost too much to absorb. I wander amongst cabinets grouped around themes such as Shadows, Optical Illusions, Dioramas and Peep Shows, almost overwhelmed by this treasure trove of visual heritage. What is wonderful about the collection is that you sense the beating heart of it, that Bill Douglas, and his collecting partner Peter Jewell, were not concerned with following any museum dictum of what was worth acquiring for chronological or historical study but rather they were gatherers of what excited them. What has emerged is more akin to cabinets of curiosity, those Wunderkammers, the assembly of objects that excite personal curiosity, that have an emotional charge, that have been used and loved by others and resonate with their later collectors. Here a battered tin, its lid designed as a peepshow; there a protean view, a changing vista, of Linlithgow Palace which, when lit, basks in moody moonlight. I take notes. I take photographs. I try to remain focussed on what I am researching but, in truth, it is too easy to stray and examine things that lie outside of my remit.

Display on shadows in the lower gallery of the museum.

Dr Phil Wickham checks on my progress. Now that he is more aware of the detail of my interest, he suggests I scan the library and see if there is anything there that might be relevant. He leads me through to what is an Aladdin’s cave of publications from contemporary books on optical collections to rare, antiquated, dog-eared, volumes on magic or visual illusions. I could happily lose myself amongst its shelves but time is limited so I scan them as quickly as I can and pull out a pile that I think might be illuminating. When I return to the study room Dr Phil Wickham hands me a large cardboard box that he thinks might be relevant. In it are sheafs of protean views, small cardboard framed lithographs of celebrated landmarks, rural scenes and historical events. Like that of Linlithgow Palace, when I hold them up to the light the scene magically changes: a daylit cathedral turns atmospheric in candlelight; a view of a restored Kenilworth Castle moves back in time to the sixteenth century and a visit by Elizabeth I, a tourist vista of Mount Vesuvius becomes less romantic as the volcano erupts. My favourite, however, is of the exiled Napolean, hands clasped behind his back, gazing out at the sun setting on the horizon on the lonely shores of St Helena (EXEBD 70197). Hold it up to the light  and one sees what lies in his memory, the Emperor now standing in triumph surveying his loyal troops.


I end my visit with the books I have selected from the library: books on peepshows and magic lanterns, on silhouettes and panoramas. I scour through their pages picking out nuggets of information and insights. The final volume, Sergeant Bell and His Raree-Show, first published in 1839, is a fictional autobiography of a peepshow showman with a wealth of anecdotes about his life and the adventurous entertainments he offers including Bonaparte’s Battle of the Pyramids, The Falls of Niagara, The Great Fire of London and The Battle of Hastings. I had seen in the museum itself a full-scale reproduction of his wooden peepshow and the book seems a fitting way to conclude my visit to the museum. I leave with Sergeant Bell’s rallying speech ringing in my ears ‘…march forward and listen to Sergeant Bell, the rarer-show-man. If there by any among you who do not desire to obtain knowledge, let them go home and hide…but if you all do desire to know more about the wonderful things and places that are in the world why, march forward then, my little women and my men.’  And I leave thinking about the wonderful things I have seen, holding in my mind’s eye all that I have been able to experience and touch, explore and read about in my time spent in this wonderful, eclectic, museum that harbours human curiosity and heart-felt enthusiasm within its walls.              

Back to latest news