Entête de page

Phantasmagoria, the Fantasy World of the Magic Lantern

A "phantasmagoria" was a type of magic lantern projection which appeared at the end of the 18th century, combining new-fangled "scientific" or technical contrivances with the taste for romantisme noir and the fashionable Gothic fantasies of the time. As a form of entertainment, it continued both to alarm and thrill European audiences for several decades. The exhibition takes us back to the early days of these displays, showing their background and later developments.


Phantasmagorias used light projections made in a darkened room to suggest horrific supernatural apparitions. In France, the first of these shows took place in Paris at the very end of the 18th century. Technically, they used the optical device of the magic lantern known since the 16th century. Artistically, they were inspired by the fantasy atmosphere of the Gothic novel, its settings of castles or ruined abbeys and its processions of ghosts. Probably created by Paul Philidor in 1793, phantasmagorias in fact owed their success to the Belgian inventor Étienne-Gaspard Robert, known as "Robertson".  Beginning in 1798, he soon turned them into a real attraction but by the 1860s, these unearthly frissons had lost their appeal as public entertainment.

The exhibition is being set up in the rooms forming the museum's permanent itinerary and takes advantage of their atmosphere in the use of original, immersive and interactive scenography. Prints, posters, press articles and books illustrate the emergence of phantasmagorias and the showmen who produced them, the technical secrets at work being revealed by magic lantern slides and various devices and instruments, some of them extremely rare. The exhibition particularly focuses on the historical, iconographic and artistic sources of a phenomenon which affected all of Europe between 1790 and 1860. Finally, it reveals the scientific and technical innovations brought into play by phantasmagorias, opening the way to the late 19th century invention of the cinema.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a set of magic lantern slides donated to the Alsatian Museum in 1928. This collection is supplemented by loans from reference collections for magic lanterns and pre-cinema devices. These include the Cinémathèque Française (Paris), the François Claire Martin and Arthur Binétruy collection, the Paul-Dupuy Museum (Toulouse) and Unterlinden Museum (Colmar). Strasbourg institutions involved are the Prints and Drawings Room, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Museums Library, Municipal Archives, the University Libraries (BNU and Alinéa) and the "Garden of Sciences" of the University of Strasbourg.


This exhibition is being held in a partnership begun in 2016 with Strasbourg's European Fantasy Film Festival and will serve to launch this year's "Grüselnàcht" (Night of Horror), a spine-chilling immersive experience taking place at the Alsatian Museum on 31 October, 2020.


Exhibition curators: Alexandre Tourscher, conservation officer and assistant curator; Candice Runderkamp-Dollé, research assistant in charge of collections, Musée Alsacien.