Shining a light on an unexpected treasure

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By Len Neale

Let me take you on the intriguing cataloguing journey that started five years ago, and has revealed many amazing discoveries. Starting as a guide, our Collection Policy said, “The Society will endeavour to:

  • Record all known details of artefacts at the time of acceptance
  • Document the artefacts’ history
  • Catalogue artefacts following museum industry standards
  • Index the collection to allow easy access to information about the artefacts.”

Well, that’s all very fine, but where do we start?

In conjunction with the Kilburnie Homestead (the other heritage-listed homestead in the Shire), and in line with the “museum industry standards” bit, and with the help of Shanna Muston from the Banana Shire Council, we called upon Dr Melanie Piddocke from Museums Queensland to conduct a Conservation and Cataloguing Workshop for us. This was done at Kilburnie, and a number of the Society members attended. That gathering provided many valuable cross-links to occurrences in the Shire’s history.

So, what did we learn from the workshop? Things like how to handle an ancient object so as not to make its condition worse, and how to tidy it up without making it appear “too new” again (not as easy as it sounds). Then comes the measuring, examining, conservation, researching its history and provenance, (the acquisition book and Mr Google sometimes help us), plus photographing, numbering and listing. We adopted the suggested simple Excel Spreadsheet as a recording tool rather than a patented database because more people have access to this spreadsheet format. And it works. So, what items could we start on?

Well, I’ll start with the first item that we catalogued, numbered GH2017.0001, and it’s one of the most amazing discoveries (among the 457 odd items catalogued so far) that we have ever made! This is where magic happens.

While stumbling around in the back storeroom at Greycliffe Homestead, we came across a dusty, rusted and tarnished piece of junk that we almost threw away, thinking it was just a rusty, jam tin.

On closer observation though, we found some wood, glass and brass components amongst the rusted tin bits, and even some plaques with important information on them. So we dissassembled the object carefully and discovered that here was real “Magic” encapsulated in this ancient “Magic Lantern”. Where do you start and how far do you go in cleaning up and conserving such an object? Good question? We cleaned up the wood and oiled it lightly. The tin bits were too rusty to leave as-is, so we rust neutralised them and preserved them with a light coat of heat-proof paint. The brass bits we cleaned and polished and clear-coated to prevent further tarnishing. The main glass “collector” lens was cleaned, and the rotted lamp wick replaced. The leaky, rusted kerosene tank was soldered, and the projector was reassembled.

But hang on a minute, there’s a piece missing! Where’s the front projector lens bit? We searched high and low, and finally concluded that it was nowhere to be found at the Homestead. What to do now? The Society Acquisition book made no mention of this object, or where it had come from. Mr Google helped somewhat in identifying when and where it was invented and made, and even that there was a whole “Magic Lantern Society of USA and Canada” dedicated to preserving such objects. So, we wrote to them, including some pictures, and we received a reply, including our letter that had been featured in their Society Newsletter. But no help with a front lens…

The original “Magic Lantern” had been designed in Pennsylvania USA, but ours had been built in 1879 under licence by the “Woodbury” company in England.  Interestingly, a version of the “George Smith” kerosene lamp component had also been utilised for signalling steam trains at English railway stations. Along with the projector, we had found five glass composite slides, two pieces of glass with painted-on images framed in a small wooden frame. We continued to puzzle about where these artefacts had come from, and it wasn’t until I showed one of the slides to one of our society members, that she exclaimed, “I remember that funny clown from my childhood”, which was the painting on one of the slides. It materialised that one piece of the glass in the slide could be moved back and forth, thus producing a moving image of a clown throwing his mate out of the window. It turned out that her grandfather, BW Palmes of Cracow Station, had brought the “Magic Lantern” in England in around 1900, and brought it to Australia. Wow! The problem of the origin of the artefact was solved, as the Palmes Family had donated many of the objects in the Society collection. But still no front lens…

As a stop-gap, we found two $5 magnifying glass lenses, set them in a piece of PVC drain pipe, painted it gold like the brass, and substituted this for the missing lens component. (If anyone has the original lens in their back pocket, then the Society would be grateful for its return). Rather than lighting the kerosene-soaked wick to demonstrate the projector in use, we substituted a LED torch light powered by batteries that can be turned on by the push of a button. Hundreds of school children and visitors to the Homestead have since been fascinated by the moving pictures replicated by “The Magic Lantern”.

So, No.1 alone has made the cataloguing exercise worthwhile, with 457 done and still many more to go…

The “Sciopticon Magic Lantern” Slide Projector, as found.

The disassembled “Magic Lantern”.

The front plaque announcing “The Woodbury improved Sciopticon”.

The rear plaque announcing “Cylindrical Lamp for Magic Lanterns etc.

The “Magic Lantern Society of USA and Canada” Newsletter.
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