The Travelling Lantern. A symposium on mobility and migration in the practice of the magic lantern.

DATE: 18 MAY 2018, 09:30-18:30 (+ evening programme screening film Saving Brinton at 20:30 at Cinema Zuid)

VENUE: M HKA, museum of contemporary art Antwerp (auditorium), Leuvenstraat 32, Antwerp

Check the entire programme!

The magic lantern was the first visual mass medium and the most important means of instruction and entertainment across nineteenth-century Europe and far beyond. The circulation of lantern slides was part of a larger cultural development in which mobility played a central role. The gradual globalization of capitalism, imperial routes and new means of transportation, coupled with the growing reach of entertainment, advertising and the press resulted in an unprecedented mobility of artists, materials and knowledge. The growing rail network connected different cities across countries, giving rise to tourism. Different parts of the world became connected by international trade and the circulation of people, goods, and ideas.

Sizeable audiences gathered by magic lantern shows across the world also contributed to, and benefitted from this increased mobility of culture. Initially, mainly itinerant entertainers with a lantern mounted on their backs – the savoyards –  spread the new visual culture along their route through villages and towns. By the second half of the nineteenth century, these showmen were replaced by science-enthusiasts, eager to astonish, amuse and instruct their audience. Meanwhile, mass production and the development of a printing process started enabling the manufacture of reproducible sets of slides alongside written instructions. Lantern slides produced by established companies in London, Paris and Germany were sold all over the world. At the same time the travelling lantern brought the whole wide world within reach via routes of transfer and exchange. For the first time in history, people who did not have the means to travel themselves could form a picture of far-away places. The illustrated travel stories depicting foreign landscapes, tourist attractions, historical monuments, and other exotic peculiarities were the favourite subjects of lantern shows. These projected travel pictures transported the audience to the very spot of the action. Likewise, magic lantern shows were also used by missionaries to evangelize and educate ‘the uncivilized native’ people in the colonies. Back home, they used the images of life in the colonies to accompany the lectures that advocated their cause and helped them raise money. In short, the magic lantern culture was by definition a culture of mobility: the lanternist spread knowledge and ideas around the world and brought new visual knowledge back home.

This symposium addresses the magic lantern not only as an iconographic object but mainly as a performative medium of cultural knowledge and ideas. In doing so, it aims to advance an interpretation of the ways in which mobility is inextricably linked to lantern culture and visions of modernity. Rather than developing a conventional geography and a linear history of the magic lantern, we aim to develop a cultural mapping that articulates a more complex story of the role of the lantern in the modern culture of mobility and circulation.

How did the increased mobility influence the modes of lantern production and trade? Did it engender new themes and materials? How did different networks of mobility – social, commercial and cultural – intersect? What impact did such transnational exchange have on national narratives? How were foreign slide sets and themes appropriated and adapted to local contexts?

This symposium is the first in a series that will be organized in the framework of the B-magic. The Magic Lantern and its Cultural Impact as Visual Mass Medium in Belgium (1830-1940) project funded by FWO and FNRS under the Excellence of Science (EOS) project number 30802346. B-Magic will write the as yet unwritten history of the magic lantern as a mass medium in Belgium. In doing so, it will make an essential contribution to the study of the country’s cultural history as well as to international media historiography.

This symposium is organized by the Research Centre for Visual Poetics (University of Antwerp) in collaboration with the B-Magic consortium partners, the research project A Million Pictures (JPI - Cultural Heritage) and with the kind support of the Scientific Research Community 'Cultures of Spectacle' (FWO).