Over 100 years ago, the magic lantern was the medium to acquaint people with far-away countries and exotic animals. Now’s your chance to relive those days by attending Science Day at the ZOO on 26 November.
The magic lantern is B-Magic's research object. Scientists representing UAntwerp and other institutions are studying this early image projector. At the turn of the twentieth century, this enchanting lantern was the tool to bring the world to the people. With its glass slides, the mass medium was ideal to inform a large audience about such things as far-away countries, exotic animals and new technologies.
Digitalising those projection plates is a huge job. The Bias in History project contains some 60,000 images. Digitalisation and use of the CLIP model, trained in the area of image and text combinations, enable the B-Magic researchers to conduct analyses of this extensive collection. In her PhD research, Eleonora Paklons (UAntwerp) focuses on the prejudices towards several countries that were spread via the magic lantern.
Do the slides show reality, or did they generally depict symbolic images that had a certain intent, along with the accompanying prejudices?
‘Shows that were put on often painted a picture of far-away, unfamiliar countries,’ she says. ‘I try to find out how certain countries or places were portrayed. Take Australia, the African colonies or the Holy Land. Do the slides show reality, or did they generally depict symbolic images that had a certain intent, along with the accompanying prejudices?’
Paklons also looks at the presentation, the way in which the shown slides were explained and framed. ‘It’s often difficult to verify whether an inaccurate portrayal was made on purpose. To determine intention and audience reception, we are conducting broader archive and newspaper research. It’s also relevant to look at which countries aren’t featured, or very little. My database hardly contains any slides on Russia, for example.’
Propaganda and criticism
Anse De Weerdt (UAntwerp, ULB) is also exploring the wondrous world of projections for her PhD research. ‘I look at the way in which colonial themes were addressed during shows in Belgium, so also at how knowledge about the colonies was spread. Those shows were put on for very different audiences: sometimes they were geared towards scientists, but there were also shows for the elite and for lower social classes.’
The colonial presence in Congo Free State and Belgian Congo was idealized in the lectures, without criticism.
The Belgian government used the magic lantern as an instrument of propaganda. De Weerdt: ‘The colonial presence in Congo Free State and Belgian Congo was idealized in the lectures, without criticism. One of the goals was to raise money for missionary work in the colony. There was an entirely different narrative in England, for example. There, criticism could often be heard during shows about Congo.’
Whoever’s interested in getting to know the mysterious magic lantern can come down to the ZOO on Science Day (Sunday 26 November). Eleonora and Anse will give everyone the opportunity to find out how their favourite animal was presented on the glass slides.
‘You can run a search for your favourite animal in the database. The search results will then be displayed, in a Google-like sort of way. We have around 4,000 slides depicting animals.’
Anse De Weerdt is carrying out her research with support from the Fund for Scientific Research (F.R.S.–FNRS).