Colour magic lantern slide depicting girls dancing and a musician, Japan (detail)
Colour magic lantern slide depicting girls dancing and a musician, Japan (detail)
Colour magic lantern slide depicting girls dancing and a musician, Japan (detail, photograph by Egmont Contreras)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 11 Feb 2021

Echoes of humanity, past and present: Magic Lantern Slides

ACMI Collection Craft History Personal Response Preservation
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Chelsey O'Brien

ACMI Curator

Curator Chelsey O’Brien describes the magic of seeing parts of your own life reflected in objects from the past.

The objects in our new exhibition all have their own unique histories and each one undertook its own special journey to arrive at ACMI, and I find it exceptionally difficult to pick just one to write about. Depending on the day, my favourites can shift wildly from glitzy costumes to historical photographs, cameras to projectors, stereoscopes to production drawings – not to mention all the film sequences. Yet I always come back to the magic lantern slides with all their many jewelled colours and variations of style. The intricate stained-glass windows offering glimpses into a myriad of differing topics, all in their own ways charmingly delightful.

While you can’t help but be mesmerised by the kaleidoscope mechanical slides or laugh at the hilarious slipping slides (Rapunzel chopping off her hair whilst the Prince is mid climb is particularly exceptional), it’s the human moments captured in the photographic slides that I adore most. There is a familiarity to the expressions on faces and in the way people are positioned that is warmly nostalgic.

Knight and Princess - Magic Lantern Slide gif

Knight and Princess slipping slide (photographs of slides by Egmont Contreras)

The four Edwardian women slide instantly reminds me of my Mum, Nana and two Aunties. It’s not that they share a resemblance but rather the way they’ve been captured. They are seated casually yet seem slightly hesitant to pose as if they’ve been caught mid-conversation. I wonder who has taken the photograph. Was it another family member or some travelling photographer? Similarly, the two boys staring at the camera in the Scarborough North Bay Railway slide remind me of my two older brothers when they were little. They appear curious of the person behind the camera yet are not quite sure if they should be investigating the steam engine like all of the others behind them.


Sepia coloured magic lantern slide depicting four Edwardian ladies sitting roadside. This image is dated 1919 (photograph of slide by Egmont Contreras)

Magic Lantern Slide - Steam engine c1930 photo North Bay railway Scarborough.jpg

Steam engine c. 1930, North Bay Railway, Scarborough (photograph of slide by Egmont Contreras)

The various narrative slides are endlessly enchanting; their playfulness makes me imagine what it would have been like to be at a lantern show in the late 1800s. While we could only display two full sets in the exhibition, the one-off slides remain captivating though removed from the rest of their stories. The Hard Way Man's expression makes me laugh and wonder about what dramatic event has occurred – I've been putting off researching it further out of fear that the truth might somehow not live up to my imagination!


The Hard Way Man with money bag, c.1890, Victorian (photograph of slide by Egmont Contreras)

My favourite of the photographic slides is The Japanese Dancers. It is so beautifully hand-coloured, highlighting not only the dancer’s actions but the texture and folds in their robes and the detail in the flowers in the background. I like to imagine them not as dancers but as expert karate fighters, flying through the air to their next adventure.

– Chelsey O’Brien, Assistant Curator

See the Magic Lantern Slides and other wondrous early moving image objects on display in our new centrepiece exhibition

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