Catching the Action
Muybridge, MOMI, and Museology in the real world.
Entrance display included 10 of the 13 San Francisco panorama panels
A Muybridge-related exhibition at London's Museum of the Moving Image in 1992 appeared by default. The funding for a Hammer Horror Films display had collapsed only weeks before it was due to open (MOMI exhibitions often featured short-term development) creating a serious problem. The re-jigged panels from Kingston's long-term Muybridge exhibition funded by Sainsbury's and now closed, had been offered to MOMI as a 'bought in' arrangement, and Curator Leslie Hardcastle decided to take this option.
Brian Coe and myself were given the task of developing the displays, as the panels from Kingston would have taken up only half of the available space. The budget was tiny; we were never told what it was. Firstly, we decided to add some Muybridge items. Although this was the Museum of the Moving Image, we were determined that Muybridge's general 'still' photography (and not only his anlaysis sequences) should at least be acknowledged. His landscapes were included in a small way in the Kingston panels, supplemented by a reproduction from the San Francisco panorama, and it was too late to source Yosemite originals, which would probably have had to come from the USA.
We were aware that his stereoscopic photography really needed to be better represented - so we sourced several stereoviews of the Modoc War (from James Ayers at the American Museum, Bath) and these were displayed in a frame, with copies being viewable in stereo through a special 5-station multi-lens viewer that was obtained on loan from a private collector. A dozen or so collotype prints from Animal Locomotion came from Kingston, and original and extremely rare positive glass plates prepared for Animal Locomotion were obtained from the Royal Photographic Society. Five lantern slides of Guatemala / Panama scenes, dug up in the 1970s from the garden of Muybridge's last home, were also included.
Expanding the scope
Secondly, we decided to expand the exhibition's scope to include other key chronophotographers such as Janssen. Artefacts included a Marey camera from the Science Museum, and an Anschutz tachyscope zoetrope and strips. Despite repeated assurances, the main Ottomar Anschutz exhibits which we were told had been 'promised' from a German museum failed to materialize a day or two before opening - a problem created by a senior BFI manager trying to be helpful and optimistic; in fact the loan had never been formally agreed - and I had to make some frantic phone calls to private collectors to obtain suitable artefacts for the display cabinets, which had by then been installed. To these I added some items from my own collection, relating to Lucien Bull, Marey's assistant and an important chronophotographer in his own right. The British Association for High Speed Photography provided panels of 20th-century colour image sequences, and David Pizzanelli provided two of his holograms animating Animal Locomotion subjects.
Despite being an award-winning building, the MOMI venue was not without its problems. There was no humidity control in the main plant system, and levels of humidity in the temporary exhibition area, and elsewhere, often reached very low levels. This was dealt with on a local basis, by placing small humidifiers (the size of a domestic gas heater) where the problem was most acute, and filling these with water every day. Without these, RH levels in the low 30% region were not unknown, but with humidification we were able to raise this to around 45-50%, with limited fluctuation. The cabinets used for the Animal Locomotion plates had been specially designed for displaying magic lantern slides (glass transparencies) in a previous exhibition. As this was before the availability of true 'cold light' units (LEDs, for instance), conventional fluorescent tubes were used, at a suitable distance from the glass display surface to ensure that heat was kept at a low level. In addition, I arranged for plastic trays to be located at the bottom of each cabinet, and these were filled regularly with water. I was able to monitor the humidity daily by keeping an eye on the colour-changing humidity tabs hidden in the cabinets, and also by using a hand-held electronic humidity measuring device. The Science Museum sent someone to check the levels in and around the display cabinet in which their Marey camera was to be located, and were satisfied that it was within reasonable limits. Lighting levels were not of great concern, since few original photographic prints were on display, and those that were could be kept below 100 Lux without any major problems of light overspill from nearby exhibits. There were no windows, so daylight was excluded.
Foldout leaflet and poster
Title and Marketing
The title of the exhibition was not arrived at easily. Clearly 'Muybridge' had to be in there somewhere, but it was our opinion that 'Chronophotographers' should also be included, much to the consternation of MOMI's Press and Marketing department. Brian and I were keen that the term Chronophotography (or Chronophotographers) should be better known, and this would be an opportunity to use it. Administration and Marketing staff joked that chronophotographers were all 'old geezers with grey beards' - and despite the occasional naked human, this was surely the 'least sexy' subject that they had ever been asked to promote. The marketing people came up with the phrase 'Catching the Action' (to 'catch the action' was thought to be a phrase common with youth at that time), and we all agreed that this should be the main title. Originally I had intended that the poster should be a spare design, perhaps a Muybridge sequence on a black background, but with the adoption of the 'Catching the Action' title something more contemporary was called for. The result, in pink and blue, was disparagingly described by one staff member as having the colour scheme of an Invitation to a Smurf's birthday party, but in retrospect it was appropriate for attracting the attention of a wide audience and helping to increase attendance. But there was a dichotomy here that was never recognised, let alone addressed: the marketing was aimed at a younger audience, whereas there was no concession to a youth audience with the exhibition's design or concept.
To some extent, however, this problem was resolved by the MOMI Education Department, who offered several one-day workshops, where students could use a Polaroid sequence camera to create their own motion analysis sequences.
There was little in the way of electronic image displays - I remember one monitor, playing animations from Animal Locomotion sequences, created by Brian Coe. We were keen to include some 'live' moving images within the exhibition. The replica Zoopraxiscope was re-located in the temporary exhibition area and operated on occasion by an actor-guide. A working model of an Anschutz Electro-Tachyscope peepshow machine was commissioned, showing Boys Leapfrogging, and could be operated by visitors on turning a handle. Three small motorised zoetropes presented animated strips from Muybridge photographic sequences.
The exhibition opens
Catching the Action - Muybridge and the Chronophotographers opened at MOMI, London, on 10 March 1992. Put together with virtually no thinking time, it was a somewhat old-fashioned display, lacking a well-developed concept. By including such figures as Louis Le Prince - we showed original paperwork from his descendants in America - and William Friese Greene, and emphasising the synthesis of chronophotographic images into motion, to some extent the exhibition focused too strongly on one aspect of chronophotography; its importance as a precursor of cinematography. In retrospect, this was mostly because our thoughts were preoccupied with 'Countdown to Cinema', a series of events that would continue until the Centenary of Cinema international celebrations in 1995/6. There was, however, a nod to chronophotography's development after the invention of cinema, with small displays of post-1900 high-speed sequences intended for motion analysis.
(l/r): Brian Coe, John and William Barnes, and Stephen Herbert with the Kingston Muybridge Centenary plaque in its temporary setting, Museum of the Moving Image, London, 1992. Photo:
Design, and reception
The Kingston Centenary plaque was located at the entrance. The Kingston panels were neat and professional, but the exhibition design as a whole was limited to some extent by being based around carrel-type nooks that had been created for a previous exibition - there was no money to rebuild the layout. Perhaps the biggest problem was an air of familiarity about the exhibits, which were largely an extension and development of the same themes in the museum's permanent displays, which the visitor had already passed through. Colin Ford (eminent curator of photography museums and exhibitions) gave a positive review for radio, tactfully explaining that this was a modest exhibition but an interesting subject, and I wasn't aware of any negative reviews. For the opening, the press were informed with a talk on Muybridge by Brian, and entertained by a melodramatic re-enactment of the Harry Larkyns shooting in MOMI's Image Workshop theatre - complete with strobe lighting as Larkyns staggered across the stage mortally wounded.
Brian Coe's book
Originally there had been no intention to produce a published catalogue or guide, due to time constraints. However, at a late stage we were informed by the Directorate that this was essential; it was to be the first of a regular-format series which they had decided should start immediately. Having just an hour or so one Thursday to get together to make a selection of illustrations, Brian and myself pooled our various picture files. Brian went on to host a two-day Doctor Who event that weekend, but under considerable pressure put the book text together - it was based mainly on his previous writings - and it was ready for the layout designer on the Tuesday. This was more journalism than book creation. A few errors slipped through, and again the book tended to focus on chronophotography as being the necessary technical precursor of cinematography, but on the whole the publication - Muybridge and the Chronophotographers (no mention of Catching the Action in the book title) - was at the time a useful introductory guide to the subject. It did not list the actual artefacts exhibited, and later examples of chronophotography were absent, as this material had arrived after the book went to press.
We had 'got away with it', producing the exhibition in about six weeks, with the curatorial aspects being undertaken in addition to our 'proper jobs'; Brian Coe was employed only part-time and was responsible for live events and lectures, and my own responsibilities as Head of the Technical Department of MOMI and the National Film Theatre took up most hours of the day. Many other MOMI staff helped of course, including picture researcher Susan Huxley, and an external contractor produced the new display panels. The alternative to Catching the Action would have meant leaving the temporary exhibition area 'dark' for two or three months, which would have been bad news for Press and Marketing, who were always seeking new material to attract visitors.
Under no illusions about the exhibition's shortcomings, we were nevertheless pleased to have been able to achieve what we did in so short a time and with very limited resources.
Following the exhibition Brian and I maintained our relationship with Paul Hill, Curator at Kingston, and subsequently visited the museum to investigate further the Zoopraxiscope and discs. Eventually I was fortunate enough to become involved in cataloguing Kingston's Muybridge collection, and was editor and co-publisher of the book Eadweard Muybridge: the Kingston Museum Bequest. My association with Kingston Museum, and more recently Kingston University, continues.
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