- The Beginnings of Cinema as a Museum ExhibitThe Cases of the Smithsonian Institution and the Science Museum in London
The recent rise in scholarship on the history and theory of film archives has brought a welcome emphasis on the aspects of the moving image that extend beyond the movie theater to: amateur, nontheatrical venues; cinémathèques; and museums.1 In the last two cases, attention has focused almost exclusively on the rise of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Film Library and Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque Française, their film collecting and programming activities, and (only secondarily) on the exhibitions they occasionally organized and their role in introducing cinema into the museum. Little attention has been paid to the long history of exhibits and displays in galleries and museums of all kinds that showcased cinema as a visual technology well before the 1930s, when initial efforts were made to institutionalize film collection around the world.2 Such early collections and exhibitions of devices, memorabilia, and film-related artifacts reveal a different understanding of cinema, emphasizing its technical and material nature over its status as a visual and narrative art that came to dominate in archives and museums later on. Tracing their origins and the motivations of curators, donors, and amateur film historians involved in preserving the history of a medium barely a few decades old reveals a systematic attempt to legitimize cinema as a technology, an art, and a form of mass entertainment. Despite the mixed success of these efforts, one can say that, in a very real sense, the writing of film history began in museums.
Two of the earliest cases of institutions active in collecting and exhibiting film-related devices as well as documenting the development of the medium were the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum and the Science Museum in London.3 Starting as early as 1898 and continuing in the first decades of the twentieth century, museum professionals on both sides of the Atlantic set standards that continue to influence the status of cinema within the walls of institutions of learning, research, and culture.4 The Smithsonian’s curator of photography, Thomas Smillie (1843–1917), and London-born inventor, exhibitor, film equipment dealer, and amateur historian Will Day (1873–1936), whose collection was for a time exhibited in the Science Museum, acquired and showcased both pre-cinematic and cinematic technologies in displays that celebrated the new medium’s promise for science. At the same time, they challenged high art’s exclusive hold on the great museums of the Victorian era. By recognizing the artistic and technological significance of the inventions of Muybridge, Armat, Paul, the Lumières, and many others, and placing them in the context of advances in visualization and the exploding amusement culture of the turn of the century, these individuals shared poet Vachel Lindsay’s ambitious vision of a “Universal Film Museum,” where cinema would be fully integrated into the canon of the other arts.5 Despite these lofty aspirations, as [End Page 18] the following “archival snapshot” will make clear, the definition of cinema at the time of its induction into these national institutions shows a remarkably consistent view of the medium as a sort of auxiliary, a mere chain in the technological evolution of visual media, despite the cultural and methodological disparities in its exhibition. From concept to exhibit, from collection to display, the place of the moving image in early-twentieth-century museums reflects the priorities and economic realities of the times as well as an institutional bias favoring pragmatic tools over visionary proclamations of cinema as “the art of the century.”
A joint consideration of these two cases can illuminate their differences and their shared characteristics. These, in turn, reveal that the early reception of film in museums was at times enthusiastic (in terms of its potential appeal to the public) and at times haphazard (in terms of curatorial and collecting priorities). Will Day was a private collector with extensive connections to the British film industry. He was driven by an encyclopedic curiosity about various toys, instruments, and media, which are still studied today as part of an archeology...