The collection

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Museum and gallery staff put their favourite artefacts on display

Week 7. The Triunial Magic Lantern. The Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI), London SE1

Walking into the world of film and television at London's MOMI, visitors are often surprised to discover that their forebears were entertained by moving pictures well before the arrival of cinema. Before film, multi-lensed magic lanterns were capable of projecting movement, using superimposition and gradual transitions.

Taking centre stage in the museum's pre-cinema gallery of treasures is a magnificent brass and mahogany triunial magic lantern dating from the 1890s. In its day it would have cost 40 guineas - a sum then equivalent to the annual wage of an average working man.

Lit by limelight, magic lanterns projected their images on to a screen. The limelight is created by burning oxygen and hydrogren in the presence of a small block of lime, producing a steady bright light. This form of illumination was also popular in the theatre, hence the expression "in the limelight". Perhaps the most spectacular lantern of all is the triunial lantern with its three lenses, enabling a lanternist to perform triple "dissolving" views.

The museum's triunial lantern is regularly fired up by a "Victorian" lanternist. With all the panache of a 19th-century showman, the lanternist uses a cunningly concealed electrical dimmer switch and a false doorway, behind which a servant is called upon to sit on the gasbags to enable the lantern to be lit.

Using a selection of more than 100 original glass lantern slides and skilful superimposition of images, the lanternist makes magical scenes appear. One show begins with a cottage: daylight turns to night and then, as the sun rises again, it becomes clear that snow has fallen; carol singers enter the scene and the whole audience enthusiastically joins in the singing at this point.

The magic lantern is regularly used in an actor-led interactive drama workshop with key stage 2 children. As part of a museum-based education package, "Entertaining the Victorians", the actor performs a magic lantern show for children. It is always a winner and gives children a taste of a particularly popular Victorian entertainment. It is remarkable to see how a modern audience can be just as captivated as their ancestors were.

MOMI is all about bringing moving pictures to life in a way that everyone can enjoy, which is why the triunial magic lantern is such a popular exhibit.

Hilary Pearce is education officer at the Museum of the Moving Image, South Bank, Waterloo, London SE1 8XT. Tel: 0171 928 3535

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