Curious Magic

The Magic Lantern Slides of the Museum of Natural History

Curated by Josh Guilford and Colleen Doyle

In Conjunction with Curiouser: Art, Science, & the Secret Life of Specimens

“Curious Magic,” designed by Jay Zehngebot and Gaby Garza, printed by Jay Zehngebot

“Curious Magic,” designed by Jay Zehngebot and Gaby Garza, printed by Jay Zehngebot

“This is that Art… which has found out means to extract visual Repercussions out of Chrystal,… [a] fallicious Art that deceives our Sight and… disorders all our Sences.”*

As a highly versatile visual projection technology, the magic lantern played an integral role in the industrialization and rationalization of visual culture that redefined modern life over the course of the 19th century.  Emerging for a time as this period’s predominant means for distributing visual information to a mass audience, it even became “the first medium to contest the printed word as a primary mode of information and instruction.”**

The Museum of Natural History’s collection of nearly 5,000 glass magic lantern slides was a product of this transformation in visuality, assembled between the end of the 19th and the middle of the twentieth centuries to educate the Rhode Island public on topics ranging from botany to zoology, geology, and astronomy. Yet despite the pedagogical purpose of this now-obsolete collection, its contents harbor an arrestingly enigmatic aesthetic dimension that has become more pronounced in the half-century since they were last projected to the public – one whose disorienting beauty harks back to the magic lantern’s origins in the 1600s when charlatans exploited the illusory powers of the projected image to magically summon forth spirits, demons, and specters, disturbing the rational contours of the natural world in a manner befitting a device commonly referred to as the “lantern of fear.”

Seeking to rediscover the magic lantern’s defamiliarizing potential, Curious Magic asks whether this technology’s dormant capacity to “[deceive] our Sight and… [disorder] all our Sences” acquires new value within a contemporary media culture whose increasing demand for immediately legible visual information threatens to elide the curiouser dimensions of the image. Combining magic lantern slides that emphasize the mysterious – and at times, haunting – aesthetic properties of the Museum’s collection with experimental 16mm films, ear-bending live music by Bevin Kelly and Alexander Dupuis, and astronomical planetarium projections courtesy of the Zeiss star projector, this screening endeavors to complicate habitualized modes of perception by extracting alien repercussions out of our quotidian environment.


Lawrence Jordan, “Solar Sight,” 2011, 16mm, color, sound, 15 min.
“A question I had in mind was: what’s the place of the human being in the cosmos?” – LJ

Caroline Koebel, “Hole or Space,” 2006, 16mm, b&w/color, silent, 3.5 min.
Koebel’s playful short draws on visually enthralling archival gems to explore perceptions of the body & its relationship to space.

Untitled, n.d., 16mm, color, silent, 5 min.
Found footage depicting an archaeological dig. Borrowed from the Brown Film Archives where it is a test reel for training student projectionists.

Caroline Koebel, “Sea Lion,” 2007, Super 8mm on 16mm, color, silent, 3 min.
Underwater images of a sea lion that seek to capture “the fascination of the filmmaker’s two-year-old son with this animal new to his world.” – CK

Stan Brakhage, “Mothlight,” 1963, 16mm, color, silent, 4 min.
A cameraless film made by pasting moth wings and flowers on celluloid. “a paradoxical preservation of pieces of dead moths in the eternal medium of light (which is life and draws the moth to death); so it flutters through its very disintegration. This abstract of flight captures matter’s struggle to assume its proper form; the death of the moth does not cancel its nature, which on the filmstrip asserts itself.” – Ken Kelman

Chris Welsby, “Tree,” 1974, 16mm, color, silent, 4 min.
A tree POV recorded on a windy day. “[In Welsby’s films,] Natural processes were no longer simply recorded from outside, as object of observation; they could be made to participate in the scheme of observation itself…. Furthermore, the automatic procedures of science and technology, instead of being inflicted on nature in order to dominate it, were directed by nature itself. The promise at the heart of Welsby’s work is that of a new type of relationship between science and nature and between subject and object of observation.” – Peter Wollen

Stan Vanderbeek, “Spherical Space no. 1,” 1967, 16mm, color, silent, 5 min.
“Man does not move in or reach for vanishing one-point perspective, he lives on a sphere spinning in orbit. This film is a metaphor of the change of perspective from the 19th century railroad man to 21st century spaceman. The nude dancer extends herself and moves through a bending landscape, sky, trees, earth seem to circumnavigate about her.” –SV

*Charles Patin, upon seeing a magic lantern projection by Johann Franz Griendel, ca. 1673-74. Quoted in Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema, trans. and ed. Richard Crangle (Exeter, Devon, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2000), pp. 59-60.

 **Tom Gunning, “Introduction” in The Great Art of Light and Shadow, xxvii.

Made possible through major funding support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in Curious Magic do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support provided by the Museum of Natural History and the Malcolm S. Forbes Center for Culture and Media Studies at Brown University.