Academy Museum And Margaret Herrick Library receive the world's most comprehensive pre-cinema collection

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Academy Museum And Margaret Herrick Library receive the world's most comprehensive pre-cinema collection
Casler-Lumiere Kinora and Reel, L. Gaumont et Cie. Wood, glass, and metal with a photo reproduction on paper and metal reel, c. 1900, France, from the Richard Balzer Collection, gift of Patricia S. Bellinger. Photo: Joshua White/JW Pictures © Academy Museum Foundation.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures announced that it, along with the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, is the recipient of the Richard Balzer Collection, widely considered to be the world’s foremost collection of pre-cinematic optical toys and devices. Comprising more than 9,000 objects—including magic lanterns, magic lantern glass slides, prints, praxinoscopes, figurines, paintings, peepshows, shadow puppets and theaters, and more, dating as far back as China’s Ming Dynasty—the Balzer Collection provides the Academy Museum an unparalleled resource for telling the full story of the development of motion pictures.

“The magic of the movies began with a sense of wonder at seeing still images come to life,” Jessica Niebel, Exhibitions Curator at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures said. “No one was more dedicated than the late Richard Balzer to the marvelous history of pre-cinema. No one did more to preserve these riches and make them available to the public. We are honored to steward the Richard Balzer Collection and present these extraordinary objects to the public.”

Matt Severson, Director of the Margaret Herrick Library, said, “This extraordinary collection of pre-cinematic material, so carefully collected and preserved by Richard Balzer, will be studied and appreciated for generations to come at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the Margaret Herrick Library. Patricia S. Bellinger and the late Richard Balzer have my utmost gratitude for what they are gifting to the Academy, film scholarship, and movie lovers everywhere."

Richard Balzer (1944–2017) collected pre-cinematic devices for over 40 years. Fascinated by the history of visual entertainment, he amassed a large collection of pre-cinema objects from Europe, Asia, and America dating as far back as the 17th century. The collection was generously donated by Patricia S. Bellinger, the widow of Richard Balzer. Bellinger, business leader and philanthropist, currently serves as the Chief of Staff and Strategic Advisor to the President of Harvard University and joined the Academy Museum’s Board of Trustees earlier this year.

Patricia Bellinger said, “Gifting this collection to the Academy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. My husband Dick’s passion for collecting pre-cinematic objects was profound, but it was his passion for teaching, storytelling, and wonderment that brought him and the collection to life. With these objects permanently in the Academy Museum and Margaret Herrick Library collections, Dick’s dedication to sharing pre-cinema’s legacy and historical memory with the public will live on in perpetuity.”

Objects from the collection will comprise one of the Academy Museum’s inaugural exhibitions titled The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection, located in the Special Collections Gallery on the third floor of the museum’s Saban Building. The exhibition will explore the long history of visual entertainment which led to the invention of cinema; from shadow play, peepshows, magic lanterns, zoetropes and praxinoscopes to the Cinématographe Lumière, the world’s first successful film projector. Visitors to this exhibition will experience these marvelous inventions first-hand and take in the wonders of a magic lantern show especially created for this exhibition.

Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection include:

Magic Lanterns:

• Phantasmagoria magic lantern: this device, designed by Philip Carpenter in 1821, was used for rear projection instead of frontal projection like other magic lanterns. The tin apparatus was hidden to create magical and frightening appearances onscreen, particularly during phantasmagoria shows. These types of lanterns were often placed on carts that were pulled back or forth to create image zooms, which were particularly effective in scaring audiences. Phantasmagoria shows are considered to be the predecessors of the cinematic horror genre.

• Eiffel Tower magic lantern: a rare single-lens device designed by Louis Aubert is shaped like the Eiffel Tower and is made of hand-painted metal. The piece dates back to 1890.

• Toy magic lanterns: the Museum received an assortment of toy lanterns which depict global locales, inspiring a sense of wonder for travel. These types of pieces were smaller in scale and were typically used by children in domestic settings rather than for public entertainment.

• Engraving of female traveling magic lanternist: considered the most well-known illustration of a woman lanternist from the 18th century, L'Orgue de Barbarie and La Lanterne Magique were designed by Edmé Bouchardon. The two engraved plates were created for use in the 1737 publication Études prises dans le bas peuple ou les cris de Paris. Showpeople traveled from town to town to bring the wonder of magic lanterns to new audiences. In the print, the lanternist carries a box of magic lantern slides on her back and her magic lantern on top. She also carries a stringed instrument called a hurdy gurdy.


• Émile Reynaud invented the praxinoscope, many of which are included in the Balzer Collection. Praxinoscopes use a strip of images around the inner surface of a manually-spun cylinder. These images are then reflected in opposing mirrors to create the illusion of a moving image. Reynaud continuously worked to advance the capacity of the praxinoscope, resulting in the praxinoscope théâtre (also part of the collection), the projecting praxinoscope, and at its most advanced stage, the Théâtre Optique, which was used to project hand-painted filmstrips to paying audiences. Théâtre Optique shows are considered to be the original iteration of animated film screenings.

• Praxinoscope glass slides: these rare slides—which were never made commercially, only by Reynaud—are black and are inserted upside down in the cylinder of the projecting praxinoscope.

• Steam driven praxinoscope: designed by Ernst Plank in 1904, the steam driven praxinoscope exemplifies the attempt to automate the moving image rather than relying on a hand-cranked device.

• Vues d’Optiques: these optical illusions play with the effect of lighting from different angles, depicting daytime scenes when lit from above that transition into nocturnal scenes when lit from behind.

• Peepshows: to engage with a peepshow, audiences would look into a box through a small hole to see an array of illustrated, painted, or photographed images.

In tandem with the gift to the Academy Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has also received more than 100 works from the Balzer Collection. In 2018, the Museum featured a selection of works from the Collection in Phantasmagoria, an exhibition that was a collaboration between Balzer and the MFA. The MFA gift includes a number of objects featured in Phantasmagoria, but is broader than the exhibition, capturing, in microcosm, the full range of the stories and puzzles represented by the Balzer Collection—works that play with perception and challenge viewers' sense of what is real and what is illusion.

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