Playing with optical toys, from dioramas to IMAX

At 12:30 p.m., a small group gathered on the third floor of the Yale Center for British Art as a man with a crisp British accent began a discussion on toys — optical toys.

Visiting fellow John Plunkett spoke Tuesday at the British Art Center as part of the Center’s weekly Art in Context discussion series. The talk, titled “Panoramas, Phantasmagorias, and Optical Toys” examined the creation and use of screen media in 19th-century England, tracing its development and eventual emergence into popular forms of entertainment.

“[My research] seeks to demonstrate a long genealogy of screen practice,” Plunkett said during his talk. “To what extent can we see the stereoscope, with its 3-D immersive effect, as an early form of virtual reality? Or, how does mapping the popularity of the 360-degree panorama impact the way we view subsequent large-format screen formats like Cinemascope and IMAX?”

Plunkett said that the recent growth of scholarly interest in screen recreation and film history can be attributed to the growing pervasiveness of virtual reality within society.

“I think that the new media technologies, particularly digital aesthetics and cyberculture, are encouraging us to rethink the nature of 19th century optical entertainment,” he said.

“One argument of my work is that the 19th century saw the enthusiastic growth of an essentially multimedia culture,” Plunkett said. Plunkett explored the changing ways in which screen culture was exhibited from rotundas for panoramas that existed as early as 1793 to dioramas in the early 1800s. Screen media was largely popularized, however, in the 19th century at bazaars and scientific exhibitions, he argued.

Plunkett suggested that this growth of screen media was happening in the domestic sphere as well.

Kaleidoscope and stereoscopic photographs were commonplace in the parlors of people of all classes of society. This simultaneous growth in domestic and public popularity resulted from the unique immersive effects screen media produce — a precursor to modern virtual reality.

“Nineteenth-century screen practices offered the opportunity for the spectator to become at one with its virtual world,” Plunkett said. “The screen provided new ways of imagining the material world, and simultaneously provided a new way for the imagination to materialize itself.”

“The role of the screen was a part of the fascination optical artifacts were able to exert, precisely because it was itself marked by the crossing and the limits of so many different boundaries,” Plunkett said at the conclusion of his talk.

Plunkett is one of two current visiting fellows at the Yale Center for British Art, the largest collection of British art outside of England. These fellows, along with Yale faculty, staff, and visiting scholars, lead the weekly “Art in Context” series discussions on topics ranging from special exhibitions to specific works of art.

“It’s a way of getting a different point of view on some of the art,” said Linda Friedlaender, curator of education for the British Art Center.

“There is an attempt to try to make the talks as interdisciplinary as possible.” The discussions are often supplemented with artifacts and manuscripts from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The next “Art in Context” discussion will be held on Oct. 29 at 12:30 p.m. at the British Art Center.

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