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  • The Ludic ArchiveThe Work of Playing with Optical Toys
  • Meredith A. Bak (bio)

Within theories of education and human development, play constitutes a means of discovery—a way of learning. This valence of play, and its relative importance, is peculiarly associated with children and childhood. It often dissipates in relation to adult endeavors, where work is seen to replace play, the latter now understood to be preparatory activity for the former. Although a similar association between play and innovation energizes some commercial sectors, notably industries such as technology and design, this mind-set rarely characterizes scholarly activity, which is often celebrated for its rigor or systematic nature. However, some kinds of scholarly inquiry, especially within the humanities, where epistemological processes and interpretive methods must flexibly adapt to the subject matter and critical questions raised, necessitate more experimental and experiential approaches. In what [End Page 1] follows, I contend that there is fruitful application for play within the scholarly context, particularly in the archival study of historic toys and the children who played with them.

Optical toys such as the thaumatrope, phenakistoscope, zoetrope, and praxinoscope were in wide circulation on both sides of the Atlantic for the majority of the nineteenth century, a time when the worlds of labor and leisure were becoming sharply defined in opposition to one another within the adult workforce. This division simultaneously collapsed in the domain of middle-class childhood, embodied by the emergent concept of rational recreation, or the idea that particular kinds of play and playthings might also be educational and thus productive for the child’s future self. Optical toys, like other playthings, such as kindergarten learning materials, served the dual purpose of education and entertainment. While primarily studied in relation to their technological and intellectual property ties to the cinema, my research instead considers optical toys in relationship to nineteenth-century children and childhood and their role in positioning children as media makers and spectators.

The following is an experiential account of my archival research across several repositories, in which I argue for play as a key methodology in the archival study of pre-cinema apparatus.1 I suggest that play is not solely an act but also an attitude, mind-set, or approach that facilitates productive encounters and discoveries within the archival context. Extending previous scholarship, this account first demonstrates how play both as a conceptual category and as a methodological approach addresses an ethical dimension of this research by enabling a better understanding of these devices as open ended in the hands of their users, countering a technologically determinist or overly theoretical interpretation. Second, embracing the notion of play in the archive enables the researcher to experience a fuller range of interactions with the objects. For too long, optical toys have been examined primarily within the context of pre-cinema or reduced to a discussion of how they work. I argue that the researcher who wishes to explore these devices’ roles in nineteenth-century visual culture should take into consideration a broader range of experiences, such as their acquisition as commercial products and the contexts in which they were used. A deeper understanding is thus gained through the affective experience of play, particularly with these toys that, themselves, “played” with the senses. These sensations cannot be felt in written accounts or digitized versions. Finally, I discuss the negotiation between preservation and access within the archival setting in defense of continued opportunities for hands-on work with artifacts in a time of increasing digitization.

I learned firsthand the importance of play in the study of these devices during my time working in the Education Department at the Museum of the Moving Image in [End Page 2]

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Figure 1.

Optical toys on display in the Behind the Screen exhibition at Museum of the Moving Image, Queens, New York. Photograph by the author.

New York, where I led daily gallery-based programs for K–12 students. Near the beginning of the museum’s core exhibition, Behind the Screen, a display features a thaumatrope, a phenakistoscope, and a zoetrope. These toys, developed in the 1820s and 1830s, feature short animated sequences (or, in the case of...


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