Projectionist of the past

March 8, 1996

Following a career in film studies, Liz-Anne Bawden tells Gail Vines how she is now showing a town's memories at Lyme Regis's museum.

Liz-Anne Bawden is proof that there really is life after academia. Some 15 years ago, she left London and a plum university post to live by the sea, in Lyme Regis, on the Dorset coast. But she had no intention of "retiring". A veteran of the Slade's film studies department, University College, London, committees and the Association of University Teachers' executive, Bawden was ready for a fresh challenge, and she soon found one. In 1988, she set out, virtually singlehandedly, to transform an old-fashioned, small-town museum into an outstanding one. By 1999, she will have done it.

In five years she has raised Pounds 300,000 to repair and improve the long-neglected Victorian building, perched on the sea wall. Now she is launching a second appeal, to raise Pounds 200,000 to create new display galleries inside. Her latest triumph is Pounds 142,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The projected date for the completion of the new galleries, 1999, is also the bicentenary of the birth of a local heroine, Mary Anning. That date is particularly auspicious, for the museum is built on the very site of the house where Anning was born.

Anning's story will be at the centre of the revamped museum's displays. A working-class Lyme woman, she earned a living in the early 1800s searching the crumbling cliffs around Lyme for fossils. These fossils were snapped up by the wealthy gentlemen who today fill the pages of the official histories of the science of palaeontology. Only now is Anning receiving the recognition that was her due nearly two centuries ago. The revitalised museum will display local fossils informally, in the manner of a Victorian fossil-hunter's study - a tribute to Lyme's historical significance as a leading "cradle of palaeontology".

A distant relative of Anning's, Sir Crispin Tickell, warden of Green College, Oxford, has been enlisted for the second phase of fund-raising and has written an essay on Anning's life as part of the appeal.

Lyme's literary connections will form another important strand in the museum's displays. "Ever since Jane Austen's Persuasion was published in 1818, Lyme has been a place of literary pilgrimage," says Bawden.

A third theme is Lyme's local history as a sea port, watering place and centre of dissent. Imprisoned by its geography, it has always been a small town. Yet Lyme has a past that befits a metropolis, says John Fowles, the novelist who has long made Lyme his home. And Bawden is intent on creating a museum that is worthy of that past, and can serve the future. "I think of the museum as the town's memory," she says.

Bawden was born in Yorkshire and spent most of her childhood in a village in Staffordshire. She read history at Oxford, from where she emerged in 1953 with a passion for "knowing how things work, how institutions have emerged". Intent on going to London, she started work in the Foreign Office and then married Harry Bawden and had two children. Long intrigued by photography and art, she started a film society in Blackheath before enrolling on Britain's first film course, at the Slade school.

Course director Thorold Dickinson asked Bawden to join his department when a new post was created in 1965. "It was a most wonderful time in the universities; it is hard for anyone now to imagine what it was like," says Bawden. "It was an expansive time - the new universities were starting up - and innovative course work and interdisciplinary teaching were positively encouraged."

But by the early 1970s, as her marriage broke up, so did the unity of the film unit. The intellectual climate had begun to change, and film studies, eager to establish itself as an "autonomous" subject, became mired in "a sterile theoretical debate", says Bawden. Deconstructionism and the like is all very well, argues Bawden, "but a base of good solid research wasn't there; it was all talk. Awful jargon emerged which became gobbledygook in the hands of all but the most capable students."

Pilloried in some circles as an "'unreconstructed humanist', which I wasn't", the historically minded Bawden continued to try to consider film in a historical and sociological perspective. The fashion of the day, however, was to regard film as simply a "text", wrenched out of its context.

Increasingly embattled in the film unit, Bawden found solace in the rationality of University College governance committees. She also joined the AUT, and progressed in 1976 to the "rough and tumble" of the national executive. She became president in 1980.

In the midst of all this, Bawden found time to edit The Oxford Companion to Film, which "was a tremendous grind, taking seven years from first thought to completion". It was, however, a landmark in film publishing - looking at film from a broad historical perspective - and was the first Companion to include living people.

By the early 1980s, Bawden decided to take early retirement and, drawn to Lyme by "Jane Austen and fossils", in 1985, she left London. Eager to be "part of the town, and to go on working", Bawden set up an art gallery.

Bawden the political animal soon resurfaced, as she ventured into yet another public institution: the Lyme Regis town council and spent eight years as councillor. "The AUT was a tea party compared to that."

At much the same time, the museum entered her life. When the then-curator John Fowles asked her to take over, Bawden seized the opportunity to take up the demanding but "honorary" post - there is no salary attached.

With no professional training in museum work, she began the laborious cataloguing and curating required to gain registration with the Museums and Galleries Commission, without which no museum could receive public grants.

The idea of reorganising the museum emerged out of the registration exercise, "but it soon became clear that the building was in such disrepair that it would really need to be rebuilt before we could think of making the inside more attractive". And so she embarked on a fund-raising mission that looks set to become the envy of many a professional.

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