This WP looks at the magic lantern in Belgium from a transnational perspective. It will study the cultural appropriation in Belgium of slides produced elsewhere and provide a comparative study with the Netherlands in two Postdoc projects. The PhD project will focus on the role of the lantern as a communication medium in relation to the Belgian colonies, and as a medium for knowledge transfer in the field of economic geography, providing by means of illustrated lectures models from abroad to be learned from.
Between 1850 and 1930, the lantern played a central part in missionary propaganda. Projected images helped greatly in putting religious messages across, because they added a visual dimension to the spoken sermon, which was especially effective since the pictures were shown in solemn darkness. Magic lantern shows were used by missionaries such as the Paters van Scheut or the Zusters Franciscanessen Missionarissen van Maria in their overseas work not only to evangelize and educate “the uncivilized native” people, but also to promote the mission’s work in Belgium: images from Congo, Mongolia, Chile or the Philippines accompanied lectures back home to advocate the cause and raise money. The lantern proved a powerful tool in transmitting a missionary view justifying colonialism to the Belgian public, but it was also used to unmask the atrocities of King Leopold’s rule in the Congo through a slide set entitled “A Reign of Terror on the Congo” (Thompson 2012) and in illustrated lectures abroad by, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle. Through the study of slide collections (Kadoc, Holy Grave, Africa Museum, Museum Dr Guislain), this PhD project will examine the Belgian missionaries’ use of the lantern. It will focus in particular on the constitution of racist stereotypes in the visualizations of the cultural Other against the background of similar contemporary popular representations of the Other in freak shows, fairs and the Zoos humains on World Exhibitions.
Cultural exchange between European cities in the 18th and 19th centuries contributed greatly to the legacy of the magic lantern. Itinerant entertainers (Savoyards) carried across borders lanterns and hand-painted slides in a box strapped to their backs. By the second half of the 19th century, they were replaced by men with scientific knowledge, eager to astonish, amuse and instruct their audience. Mass production started slowly after 1830: the Briton Philip Carpenter began to transform the lantern trade along organized industrial lines. In its heyday, the most established companies were situated in London (Carpenter & Westley), Paris (Duboscq, Molteni) and Germany (Liesegang); they produced slides on a large scale and sold them all over Europe. Not being one of the main producing countries, in Belgium the slides shown were often imported. This subproject deals with the magic lantern as a medium of cultural exchange. Since the history of the lantern is an international one, its role and impact as a mass medium in Belgium needs to be considered from a transnational point of view. Where did slide series shown in Belgium originate? Did Flemish and Walloon audiences see the same images or were imports from France, Britain and Germany distributed differently in the two communities? How were slides appropriated by performers and adapted for national audiences?
This subproject carried out by the external Dutch partner adds an important dimension to B-magic by providing material for a comparison with the Netherlands, a neighbouring country with a similar, yet in several respects (among which was the position of the Catholics) very different social structure. As in Belgium, newspaper announcements of and reports on lantern performances and illustrated lectures abound (e.g. the thousands of hits in a preliminary survey in the Dutch database of digitized newspapers, “Delpher”), which will enable the mapping of magic lantern projections in the Netherlands and identify the societal groups that organized them, their subjects, and the way in which they were discursively framed.
One of the case studies that has been explored already involves the use of the optical lantern as a means of Belgian propaganda in the neutral Netherlands during World War One. Fled Belgian intellectuals like art professor Leo van Puyvelde and architect Huib Hoste were highly active in Dutch lecturing networks. Lantern lectures on Belgian architectural history were a widely employed format to fuel anti-German sentiment as well as Belgian patriotism among a dispersed community. Part of this research will be published in Journal for Belgian History (fall 2021).
Another case study involves the use if the lantern for Boer propaganda during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) in the Netherlands and Flanders. Many lantern lecturers actively took part in this early media war, often addressing the cultural kinship between the Dutch, Flemish and Boer ‘brother nations’. Here, the optical lantern functioned as an instigator of discourses on the Greater Netherlands.
The last case study focuses on another aspect of lantern culture around 1900: the uses of the optical lantern to disseminate medical knowledge in- and outside academia. Projecting microscopic images was a landmark event in medical science communication, allowing a wider, international audience to witness a hidden world and to accept new truths. We argue the lantern was a pivotal part of the ‘golden age of bacteriology’.