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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003) 589-592

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Curious Perspectives

Andrea Immel,
Princeton University

Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances Terpak. Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen, object list by Isotta Poggi (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2001). Pp. x + 405. $39.95 paper.
Anka te Heesen. The World in a Box: The Story of an Eighteenth-Century Picture Encyclopedia, trans. Ann M. Hentschel (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002). Pp. xii + 237. $60.00 cloth. $20.00 paper.

Anka te Heesen's histoire totale of Stoy's Bilder-Academie, a late Enlightenment educational project designed for the use of the Bürgertum's children, seems at first to have little in common with Stafford and Terpak's magical mystery tour of an exhibition catalogue about the history of instruments for viewing the world. Closer examination suggests that these two studies analyze the development of early modern material culture's visual aspects and its perplexing legacy. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artists, educators, and scientists recognized how the increased ability to reproduce images could change perception, but they were instinctively wary of appealing too strongly to the eye. A magic lantern, which was both philosophic instrument and toy, or Stoy's Bilder-Academie, whose plates were also issued with a set of illustrated cards that was a hybrid of the Orbis Pictus and plaything, stirred up simultaneous attraction to and distrust of the visual, because any tool facilitating ocular demonstration posed a serious challenge [End Page 589] to the word's primacy in science or education, where the foundation had traditionally been logical proof and rational discourse. Although the function of scientific instruments is usually regarded as diametrically opposed to that of children's toys, the use of either normally involves demonstration or performance, whether showing viewers the operation of a physical phenomenon or enabling the imitation of an activity. As the dramatic is inherent in instruments and toys, it was therefore possible to pursue knowledge for profit and pleasure.

In the Getty's installation of Devices of Wonder, Stafford and Terpak demonstrated why the definitions of "device," "instrument," and "toy" have always overlapped: such objects reflect the complex dynamics between the senses and the mind, imagination and reason, entertainment and instruction, the profound and the trifling. The unprecedented (and probably unsurpassable) exhibit of beautiful eye machines included magic lanterns, vue d'optiques, camera obscuras, peepshows, dioramas, and stereoscopes, with related prints such as Victorian lunar photographs which the invention of high-powered telescopes made possible—not to mention Benjamin Martin's mid-eighteenth-century brass model of the eye, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin's fully operational 1846 automaton Antonio Diavolo, and a Georges Meliès short film among the many wonders of the exhibit—juxtaposed with modern conceptual pieces such as Joseph Cornell boxes, Lucas Samara's 1966 installation Mirrored Room, and Diana Thater's video projection.

The heterogeneous materials were artfully jumbled into what Stafford describes as "information-rich geographies surfacing from the continuous floor of the gallery in response to disturbances of the familiar underlying historical terrain" to encourage "inquisitive voyaging" or "to visually push and pull artifacts around, shaping them into additional patterns of personal, social, and cultural meaning" (2). And the curators did leave visitors largely on their own to make connections across the galleries crowded with islands bristling with arresting, unfamiliar things. But the curatorial rationale for placing materials on the Wunderkammer island probably escaped most visitors because the labels did not explicate the "secret" but discernable relations betweenearly nineteenth-century miniature libraries for children, Frank Gehry's metal, mesh, and glass crocodile, and a seventeenth-century Dutch display cabinet of wonders crowned with a late twentieth-century assemblage of shells, minerals, and coral. Regrettably, the catalogue's unconventional approach to documenting an unusual exhibition does little to address the "wonder" that viewing may have induced in the inquisitive visitor.The installation's floor plan identifies the items on each island keyed to the list of objects, but with no indication of their relative placement. The list, whose entries also double as...


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