Imagine this. It's the 1880s and you’re trying to organise the trade unions to form the Australian Labor movement. Cinema won’t be invented for another 15 years. So how do you let people far and wide know about your movement and inspire them to join? You put on a magic lantern show, of course.
These mass-produced glass slides have been used to depict everything from missionary movements and temperance campaigns to the latest scientific discoveries, comedy skits and popular folklore. ‘Magic lantern shows were how a lot of people would have publically consumed images in a collective context,’ says Dr Elisa deCourcy, Research Fellow working on the ARC Discovery Project Heritage in the Limelight: The Magic Lantern in Australia and the World.
As a media format the magic lantern slide, which was either entirely hand painted or a hand coloured photograph, has been fundamental to our visual culture. ‘While the VHS had a good 30-year run and the DVD even shorter than that, magic lanterns were a popular medium for nearly 200 years,” says Associate Professor Martyn Jolly, lead CI for the project. “Even today, every time someone flips on the PowerPoint projector in the lecture room, that’s an unbroken lineage back to the magic lantern.”
Australia has many unique collections within the magic lantern tradition, says Dr deCourcy, ‘Australian missionaries’ often sent hand-painted slides depicting missionary life in Aboriginal communities to metropolitan centres around Australia to campaign for continued support of their missions. At the same time, the missionaries were receiving and showing slides from metropolitan areas to the Aboriginal communities.’
So what happened to all those coloured slides? With no easy way to exhibit them in galleries, they were often relegated to archive rooms or the storage cupboards of unwitting inheritors. Associate Professor Jolly and Dr deCourcy are two of a number of academics on the project working to change that.
As part of the Discovery Project, Associate Professor Jolly and Dr deCourcy are digging through the archives, restoring vintage magic lanterns with the assistance of experts from the School of Art and Design, and putting on shows. ‘To understand the magic lantern phenomenon, you cannot just research it in a stagnant form. You must experience it. You must attempt to perform it,” Associate Professor Jolly says.
The focus of the research aims at building a cohesive picture of the collection of magic lantern slides across Australia and developing a broader understanding of the historical, socio-political, educational and entertainment applications of the popular medium.
In partnership with the ANU Centre for Digital Humanities Research and digital designers from the School of Art and Design, the team have built an online archive to preserve the available collections of Australian magic lantern slides, both within their possession and by a number of partners who have generously offered their collections for archiving. The online archive has now brought together over 5,000 slides from the project’s own collection and from other significant collections such as the National Library of Australia and Museums Victoria. The team have also experimented with a ‘generous interface’ that encourages access to the database through performance videos which allow people, in a virtual sense to experience what a performance was like.
Still, nothing can replace the magic of a live show. Wish you could turn back time and sit in on a magic lantern show? From 4-6 September, you can.
‘The Magic Lantern in Australia and the World’ conference, in a partnership between the National Film and Sound Archive and ANU, will be hosting a variety of projection shows each evening of the conference. The Magic Lantern Conference will bring together academics studying magic lantern histories in Europe, the US and Australia. While tickets last, members of the public are welcome to register for the evening performances separate from the academic conference. Evening registration is $15A for students and $20A for all else.
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