The enchanting world of the magic lantern

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Nowadays we use beamers to project images on a screen. Centuries ago they used magic lanterns. The Laterna Magica was a 17th-century invention of the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens. The exhibition Magical Lanterns in Leiden revives the enchanting world of the Laterna Magica.

The magic lantern is a square box with a lens. A handpainted glass slide is placed behind this lens and behind that a candle, to project an image on the wall.

Peter the Great
The magic lanterns were produced by the Leiden family business Van Musschenbroek. Famous clients such as the tsaar of Russia, Peter the Great, even bought a lantern from them. Only two lanterns by Van Musschenbroek have survived, one of which is on display in Leiden.

The exhibition also includes some unique 18th-century glass slides. They are very rare as they were still made by hand. The museum accidentally discovered an impressive collection of slides when clearing out their depot.

In olden days magic lanterns were only for the rich. Now everyone is welcome to come and see a slideshow. There are images of animals, old trades, fairytale characters and landscapes. But not all the slides are innocent... For the adult visitor there is an erotic series from the 18th century – the predecessor of the porn movie. Some of the pictures have been censored by making the saucy details invisible with ink.

To save the one precious magic lantern, the slides are projected with a 21st-century beamer. However, for the enthusiasts there are special shows with the original lantern.


Magic Lanterns in Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden; until 12 August 2012