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The Misuse of Magic Lanterns

The Misuse of Magic Lanterns

For the past year, I've been working on a project called The Wonder Show that presents reinterpretations of Victorian magic lantern shows to contemporary audiences. For our upcoming performance at the RISD Museum of Art, a program that will accompany an exhibit on American landscape photography, we will be presenting a spin on the illustrated travel lecture. In reinterpreting this popular cultural form, we hope to reflect critically on some the assumptions embedded within it, such as the national mythologies surrounding travel and exploration. In my research for this performance, and on magic lanterns and 19th century culture in general, I found that looking to the past provides a useful context for contemporary debates around authority and expertise, mass culture, participation and knowledge production.

In my research, I came across an interesting article. Published exactly 100 years ago, "The Misuse of Magic Lanterns in Museum Lectures" appeared in a 1912 issue of Science magazine. [1] The author Charles Haskins Townsend, Director of the New York Aquarium from 1902 to 1937, laments the dissolving ambit of the intellectual in these popular demonstrations, mounting a polemic against those lectures that relied too heavily on the enchantments of colorful photographs. Disquieted by a series of ornithological presentations he witnessed, Townsend actually anticipates much of our current cultural anxieties surrounding issues of authority and expertise, and the use and meaning of images in mass culture. "Good pictures are dangerous in the wrong hands," he writes, forewarning against the seductive -- yet intellectually bereft -- temptations of spectatorship.

At the time Townsend was writing, cinema had already superseded the magic lantern as the embodiment of the popular imagination. The magic lantern could not compete with the convincing illusions of the new moving pictures, and yet it remained popular on the lecture circuit, in the travelogues that projected slides of the exotic unknown. Illustrated travelogues by the likes Burton Holmes, who also incorporated film clips in his lectures, provided the frisson of anthropological excitement to the audiences of Townsend's time, effectively blurring the boundaries between education and entertainment, fact and fantasy, in this simulated form of travel.

Townsend worried that the distinguished lecturer might abase himself to the level of the showman, and that the seduction of pictures would steer audiences away from the intellectual meat of the topics at hand. Without the proper scholarly contextualization, he argued, these projections amounted to a cheap form of tourism -- which was also true. In some cases, traveling lecturers had never even visited to the places of which they spoke (it was possible to purchase box sets of slides, and even scripts, for a ready-made performance). And no lecture was without its seamy embellishments and amusing asides to hold the attention of the armchair traveler. [2]

But what seemed to bother Townsend the most was not these embroidered tales, but the ascendency of the image, presented without its erudite gift wrapping, as the primary attraction of the lecture. This historical phenomenon accompanies the late 19th century rise of amateur photography, at which time, as Douglas Nickel writes, "...the way lives were lived became entangled in the way lives were now represented. A modern society of the spectacle was taking shape." [3] Twelve years before Townsend lodged his critique against amateur lecturers, Kodak's Brownie camera was unveiled to bring photography to the masses.

Townsend writes: "What shall we say of that misguided person, who, having at least eighty pictures to illustrate his lecture on Alaska, or some other far-away place, throws in about forty more, to show how he got there? Half a dozen to get the ship away from the dock at Seattle, half a dozen shots at the city as he steams away, a few more at passing vessels, another half dozen at the members of his party (in which he is careful to show up in most of the groups himself), a few pictures of the captain, and about a dozen showing the Indian villages of the British Columbia islands, as he steams kodaking along, and all of which have been kodaked by a dozen tourists on every steamer, every week for the past twenty years." [4] His jeremiad on the society of the spectacle could just as easily been about the photographic excesses of the instagrammed Facebook era.

Today, technological and social shifts are also presenting opportunities for novel forms of amateur participation in public culture (and I use the word "amateur" without any negative connotations, simply to describe non-professionals). Along with new forms of social organization, Clay Shirky writes, digital culture has brought "mass amateurization." [5] People without any ratified credentials can edit Wikipedia entries, become famous on YouTube, and post restaurant reviews on Yelp; publishing, like photographic production in the late 19th century, has become democratized. For museums whose traditional raison d’être was to be the ultimate authority, the source of unassailable knowledge, these changes are fraught with questions. How best to incorporate these voices of others into official knowledge? How to meaningfully engage different perspectives without losing the public trust?

But what Townsend shows us is that these questions and anxieties are not new. The rise of amateurism caused equal unease in 1912: "But shall the museums, holding as they do, authoritative positions respecting art and science, disregard the fact the amateur is among us with lantern pictures that may be better than ours? Is it not time to consider whether by continuing as we are doing, we may be cheapening the labors of the distinguished specialists who cheerfully do their own part in our own lectures courses?"  He goes on at great length against this "sugar-coated science" (which, again, sounds like the familiar critique against "edutainment") before finally asking,"Should we not illustrate our lectures, and cease to lecture about our illustrations?"

The question is an apt one, but I'm not sure I agree with the dichotomy he creates. Beyond reacting against the vernacular forms of visuality emerging at the turn of the century, Townsend also cleaves a Cartesian binary between looking and doing, the eye and mind, and beauty and intellect, which conforms to deep-seated cultural biases and assumptions about images in the West. [6] In such a view, the picture, especially in the hands of the masses, is not construed as a way of knowing unto itself, but is a poor imitation of the world of real knowledge. The picture becomes a dangerous thing, like Plato's shadows undulating across the wall of a cave, luring viewers away from sense.



1. Townsend, C.H.,"The Misuse of Lantern Illustrations by Museum Lecturers." Science 35 (1912): 529-533.
2. Barber , X. Theodore. "The Roots of Travel Cinema: John L. Stoddard, E. Burton Holmes, and the nineteenth century illustrated travel lecture." Film History 5 (1993): 68-84.
3. Nickel, Douglas R.. Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the present. San Francisco, Calif.: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998.
4. As Nickel writes, "Kodak" became a part of speech in the common vernacular as amateur photography became a cultural phenomenon.
5. Shirky, Clay. Here comes everybody: the power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.
6. Rancière, Jacques, and Gregory Elliott. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2009.


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