The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library have received the world’s foremost collection of pre-cinematic technology and toys. It contains more than 9,000 objects brought together by author, documentary photographer, and collector Richard Balzer between the 1970s and his passing in 2017. The Richard Balzer Pre-Cinema Collection’s breadth will be a valuable resource for the Academy Museum to tell a holistic story about cinema’s development when it opens in April 2021.
Most narratives around the evolution of moving image technologies place cinema’s emergence in direct relationship to the history of photography. As a result, pre-cinematic endeavors are often cast exclusively as a Western enterprise. In other words, developments elsewhere in the world have been subjugated to a cohesive historical arc about pinhole cameras and early projection shows across Europe and the United States. One of the most remarkable things about the Balzer Collection is that while it certainly underscores this history, Richard Balzer also sought out objects from East Asia. With objects dating back to China’s Ming Dynasty, the Balzer Collection affords us the opportunity to reframe and reorganize pre-cinematic history along new geographic and aesthetic lines.
The collection was donated by Balzer’s widow, Patricia Bellinger who is currently chief of staff and senior advisor to the president of Harvard University and serves on the Academy Museum’s Board of Trustees. “Gifting this collection to the Academy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Bellinger said in a statement. “My husband Dick’s passion for collecting pre-cinematic objects was profound, but it was his passion for reaching, storytelling, and wonderment that brought him and the collection to life.”
Balzer’s passion and wonderment explain his collection of unique magic lanterns (he was also chairman of the Magic Lantern Society from 1984 to 1989). These artifacts of 18th- and 19th-century public amusement were used to project still images onto a screen, accompanied by live narration. While these lanterns are largely associated with grand spectacles, the Balzer collection includes an assortment of toy magic lanterns depicting common tourist destinations of the time, like India and Sub-Saharan Africa, and that are smaller in scale, so children could project themselves at home.
The Balzer Collection owes much of its charm to its many peepshows, a long-held interest of Richard Balzer, who authored Peepshows: A Visual History in 1998, a book containing over 200 illustrations from Balzer’s extensive collection and covering the five centuries in which peepshows were a popular amusement in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Unlike the entertainment shared with audiences through early projection technologies, the peepshow operated on a more intimate scale. That is, a person would have to walk up to a box, look into a small hole, and then see an array of illustrated, painted, or photographed images. Soon accessible to the public, the Balzer Collection’s peepshows offer a novelty that would otherwise be lost to time.
Among the Balzer Collection’s rarest finds are the glass slides used in praxinoscopes. Praxinoscopes use a strip of images around the inner-surface of a manually spun cylinder. The images are then reflected in opposing mirrors to create the illusion of a moving image. The glass slides were never made commercially available. At its most advanced stage, known as the Théâtre Optique, hand-painted flimstrips were used to project moving images. Théâtre Optique shows are the earliest known predecessors of animated film screenings.
These fascinating objects and much more will be featured in one of the Academy’s inaugural exhibitions, The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection. Alongside peepshows and magic lanterns, it will feature zoetropes, and the praxinoscopes used for the Cinématographe Lumière, the world’s first successful film projector. Not only will visitors be able to experience these objects in-person, they will also be able to watch a magic lantern show especially created for the exhibition.
Originally set to open on December 14, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (6067 Wilshire Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) delayed its opening due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will now open to the public on April 30, 2021.