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Many of the items in Whangārei Museum's collection are of a serious nature, but there are those that are more light-hearted and whimsical, some literally conjuring up images which are reminiscent of a Victorian pastime.

The "Laterna Magica" or magic lantern has been described in old writings as a "primitive projection system". Essentially, they were devices that were used to entertain and educate audiences before the beginning of cinema.

A 1902 Edition of Sears, Roebuck & Co Catalogue, advertising magic lanterns in the Whangārei Museum collection. Photo/Supplied
A 1902 Edition of Sears, Roebuck & Co Catalogue, advertising magic lanterns in the Whangārei Museum collection. Photo/Supplied

Invented in the 1650s, magic lantern projectors were utilised for centuries in various cultures to show hand painted glass slides and illuminations mainly as a form of entertainment. Often called a "stereopticon show", magic lanterns shows were the combination of projected images by a light source, live narration, and live music that preceded the movies.

Housed in the Museum's collection is an eclectic mix of these innovations, with one in particular, donated by Roy Stables in 1966, being manufactured by a distinguished British firm of instrument makers and was most likely brought out from England by his grandparents circa 1880.

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The company which produced this particular lantern operated from 1858 under the name Newton & Co Opticians, specialised makers of scientific instruments and globes. By the 1880s they had become one of Britain's most eminent manufacturers of magic lanterns and slides and continued into the 1940s.

Initially scientists used these devices but by the 18th century onwards they became more popular for entertaining. As the lantern quickly developed and light sources improved, projectionists could provide shows to larger outdoor audiences. Lanternists, also known as "Galantee" showmen or "Savoyards", travelled the country carrying the lanterns and slides on their backs, many homemade, giving open-air performances.

Hand painted glass magic lantern slides. Photo/Supplied
Hand painted glass magic lantern slides. Photo/Supplied

From the late 19th century, photographic slides were produced and use of the lantern projector became more oriented toward education, with illustrated lectures on real world phenomena. Performances became more extensive and impressive, novels were adapted into magic lantern shows and explorers returning to Europe from far-flung reaches of the world toured hometowns with images from their travels.

These mystical inventions even had a role in the European settlement of New Zealand. Representatives of the New Zealand Company toured England with a magic lantern showcasing New Zealand's virtues. Audiences were so enthralled by what they heard and saw about the colony and its vision, they decided to emigrate from their homeland and set sail for New Zealand.

Laterna Magica box lid. Photo/Supplied
Laterna Magica box lid. Photo/Supplied

The lantern's greatest popularity as an optical projector spans from the 1870s to the 1920s and was used in theatres, churches, fraternal lodges and clubs.

Its educational use was demonstrated by the Whangārei Mutual Improvement Society in 1899 when the society procured a magic lantern of "great excellence". It enabled scientific and other syllabus subjects to be shown for the advancement of the region's young people.

Other magic lantern shows were held in Whangārei from the 1880s through to the 1930s in local venues like the Oddfellows Hall, Cubbitt's Hall, Theatre Royal and YMCA where screenings of astronomical lectures and "The Horse from Antiquity" could be viewed by the public. Some churches installed magic lanterns, calling them "service-enlighteners" as aids to increase congregation attendance.

Often called a
Often called a "stereopticon show", magic lanterns shows were the combination of projected images by a light source, live narration, and live music that preceded the movies. Photo/Supplied

As lanterns became cheaper and more readily available, families could create lantern shows for themselves at home. With subjects ranging from the serious to the hilarious, it was a highly popular form of amusement in Victorian drawing rooms for adults and children.

When cinematography was introduced, the popularity of this magical oddity from an era of wonder and excitement declined. Lanternists, who were once worshipped as a kind of magician, were pushed aside and rejected if they dared to perform with their non-moving images.

Though the birth of the moving picture and its rapid growth certainly changed the world of the "Lanterna Magica", they still provide wonderment and pique the curiosity of many.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.