Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Temples of Delight

6th May 2016

We are just back from Turin (city of baroque streets and shops selling hand-made, mens’ pyjamas) where I have fallen in love all over again with the Cinema Museum, for its wit and imagination.  (And if you haven’t been already you should go at once.)

The Museum tells the early history of Italian cinema of which Turin was once the capital – until Mussolini moved it to Rome in the 1930’s to punish the Torinese for their uppity and anti-fascist behaviour.  A woman called Maria Adriana Prolo saved the collection from destruction when Turin was bombed (first by the Allies and then by the Germans) and then added to it from the flea markets of the ruined, 1950’s city, where she found magic lanterns slides by the hundreds.

Acres of pleasure lie before you but my favourite artefacts are the toy theatres, old cameras, magic lanterns, peepshows, zoetropes, an Eidophusikon, a Praxinoscope (the names are wonderful) and all kinds of other 19th century optical toys.  The magic lanterns are made of wood and look like Russian stoves with wooden legs and metal hats and long, bronze noses.  The old cameras look like squeeze boxes, with wooden fronts and backs enclosing concertina-ed innards.  The magic lantern slides are painted with ghosts, magicians, monsters, skeletons, moonlight, sea serpents and skipping dogs.  They hark back to the world of 19th century Italian towns where pedlars sharpened  knives and sold willow baskets and entertained the local children with magic lantern shows.

It’s all part of the long, sparkling, exuberant pre-birth of the cinema that stretched from the 17th to the 19th centuries, before Hollywood and the money men and blockbusters moved in.  It makes me wonder if museums also were less serious and more exuberant at the beginning of their history?

The Cinema Museum is the creation of the Swiss designer Francois Confino and in exhibition terms he gets so much right. He makes a match between the playful subject and the playful treatment of the subject.  He remembers that in the cinema story nothing is solid and everything is an illusion.  And he gives the Museum that most valuable of things, its own tone of voice and style and personality, which is something that good novels have but museums much less often.  With its wit and exuberance it’s like Angela Carter’s novels or ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.

One thing though is interesting.  The Museum revels in the wonder and playful magic of early cinema.  One hundred years later the web is in the same position and is just as playful as zoetropes and magic lanterns once were.  But the Museum was created before the advent of social media and before the web became so dominant.  And so there is an opportunity for a designer to come along and to effect the next bit of magic, threading the playfulness of the web through these displays and enabling the visitors to slip like magicians between the real world and the digital.

Images, top and bottom, are lantern slides from the Museum.