x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Entertainment through the ages

The Dubai Moving Image Museum recently opened to the public. We paid a visit and discovered an impressive array of rare items chronicling the evolution of visual entertainment.

A 19th-century German toy magic lantern with a 1001 Knights Tale theme on display at the Dubai Moving Image Museum. Sarah Dea / The National
A 19th-century German toy magic lantern with a 1001 Knights Tale theme on display at the Dubai Moving Image Museum. Sarah Dea / The National

Many generations before anyone had dreamt up the concept of 3-D, high-definition, flat-screen television, people were experimenting with mirrors, light and shadows to create visual entertainment.

In fact, it can be argued that pre-historic cavemen who made shape-shadows with their hands by the light of a flame were the first to experiment in such a way. And if you track the evolution of these hand movements into shadow theatre and its successors - magic lanterns, thaumatropes and the wonderfully hypnotic phenakistoscopes - you will find the seed that developed into the image-saturated world we live in today.

This is the story that unfolds in the Dubai Moving Image Museum (DMIM), a new space in the Tecom area that houses the personal collection of one man who has been obsessed with the development of the moving image for nearly four decades.

"It all started 36 years ago, when I bought a zoetrope at the Portobello Market in London," explains Akram Miknas, the founder of the museum. "Shortly after, I went to Germany where I found a kinora. Since zoetropes portray early hand-drawn animation and kinoras display early photographic images in motion, I realised that there was a strong link between the two and began exploring the subject further."

Miknas, who was born in Lebanon but holds Bahraini nationality, is the chairman of the Middle East Communications Network (MCN) and has had a successful career in marketing and advertising.

He says the two passions link perfectly. "I have always had an interest in photography. I then went into the advertising business, where visual communication is key and I further realised just how significant images can be and the many ways in which they can be used."

This interest turned into a lifelong obsession, which saw Miknas travelling around the world collecting items specifically related to this niche genre, and has culminated now in the museum. The DMIM is one of only three museums in the world dedicated to the moving image and, despite the 350 pieces on display, it contains only part of Miknas's vast collection.

"I had a goal from early on to develop my collection fully in order to create the museum," he says. "I hope that visitors will discover and understand the development of man's fascination with the moving image and also understand the value of the moving image in modern communication."

Even if visitors have no prior knowledge of the subject before entering, the museum has been arranged and created in a way that is engaging and interactive, and with the added benefits of the museum manager Mandy Aridi's informative tour, you are bound to come away enriched.

"What is really unique about this museum is that we represent every single aspect leading up to the advent of cinema in 1895 but that is where we stop," she says. "We also move chronologically by concept, not necessarily by date, so there are some pieces that go beyond 1895 but they were still concepts that began before the advent of cinema."

The treasures of the museum begin at the entrance, with a row of fun-house mirrors and some original seats from an old French cinema, and follow through to some perfectly preserved shadow theatre sets from 19th-century Germany and France.

The oldest piece in the museum is a Dutch peep-show viewer from 1750. It is a large expandable box with image slides inside that are viewed through a magnifying glass. The images have holes cut out at specific spots and would be lit with a candle or an oil lamp from behind; so depending on the changing light, you get a day and a night view.

"They have an exaggerated perspective and a great depth of field because they wanted people to feel as if they were inside the image," Aridi says. "This was the beginning of 3-D."

The next section is dedicated to the magic lantern, which is the first evidence of the projected image and also reveals the seeds of animation, because travelling professionals would carry their magic lantern from town to town and put on shows accompanied by music.

Magic lanterns became so popular that they were turned into toys and Miknas has collected a great variety of the ones that were used in homes across Europe in the 19th century.

In the centre of the museum space is the impressive kaiserpanorama, a life-size replica of the early form of stereoscopic entertainment that was invented by the German physicist August Fuhrmann in 1880. The concept is to display two offset images separately to the left and right eye of the viewer, who sits around the large circular structure and stares into the machine. The images are combined in the brain to give the perception of 3-D depth and inside the kaiser- panorama the sets of images rotate.

"This and some of the toys that visitors can play with are the only replicas in the museum," says Aridi. "This is exactly what they would look like in Germany in the 19th century. They were placed in bars and theatres and people would pay some money and sit and be entertained."

It might seem outdated and clunky to our smartphone-adjusted eyes, but it is no less entertaining to witness the clarity of the images today as it was more than a century ago. The museum is a window into a world that we rarely think about and unless people like Miknas continue to make an effort to show us, it is likely to get chewed up into the relentless cycle of modernisation that has so little value for the past. Thank goodness for the obsessions of enthusiasts.

Standout pieces from the Dubai Moving Image Museum

Schattentheater, Germany, 1885

Translating to shadow theatre, this piece is a simple cardboard structure framing a cloth screen, which would be lit from the back by a candle or an oil lamp. The box would also contain a set of black cardboard cut-outs of a range of characters, from the peasants to the bourgeoisie, which would be used to put on skits and shows for communal entertainment.

The Magic Mirror or Wonderful Transformations, America, 1880

This set of hand-painted cards that should be viewed as reflection in a small cylindrical mirror is an example of anamorphosis - where a distorted image comes to a logical focus only through a special device. It shows that artists, entertainers and even toymakers were interested in manipulating images and studied reflections and mirrors intensively.

Vertical peep-show viewer, Germany, 18th century

This piece uses the concept of layered hand-cut cards that are placed vertically at certain distances in the shaft of this box, so that when reflected by a mirror and viewed through a lens at the top, they create a three-dimensional image. The peep-show viewer represents the beginning of 3D images, because when viewed all together, the layers present a scene that has depth and the illusion of movement.

1001 Nacht Toy Magic Lantern, Germany

The magic lantern signifies the beginning of projection, where hand-painted images on glass slides were projected through this device onto a wall. This piece is one of the rarest in the museum, not just because it is in immaculate condition but because it represents the Orientalist fascination with the East and the Middle East and bears the title 1001 Nights.

The Dubai Moving Image Museum at Tecom is open from 11am to 7pm, other than on Wednesdays when it shuts at 9pm and Saturdays when it opens at 12pm. Closed Fridays. Visit www.dubaimovingimagemuseum.com orwww.dmim-blog.com. Admission: Adults Dh50, children Dh25


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