The technology behind the Camera Obscura – the reflection of light into a dark space, creating a projected image – is more than 1,000 years old. How do you make that feel new in 2013 for kids who are accustomed to high-tech screens that fit in their pockets? That was the challenge the we faced when creating Lights, Camera, Color: Exploring the Camera Obscura, a reinvented exhibit on the Museum’s third floor.
The year is 1020.
There are about 300 million people on earth. The city of Portland, Maine won’t be established for another seven centuries. Recent innovations include locks (allowing the creation of canals) and fire arrows. The Middle East is in a golden age of scientific achievement, with scientists making notable progress in the fields of medicine, astronomy and physics. The scientist Alhazen (also known as Ibn al-Haytham) has made an important discovery about how people see.
Until 1000 A.D., people believed that eyes sent out rays of light, and those rays formed a picture. They believed that the picture disappeared when eyes were closed because eyelids blocked the light from shooting out. After many experiments with light, Alhazen correctly theorized that eyes work the other way around, receiving light to create an image. His work offered the first clear description and early analysis of the device that came to be known as a camera obscura (latin for dark chamber): a box with a small hole
into which reflected light rays pass to create an image of what is outside. He used the camera obscura throughout his lifelong study of optics; his work corrected several antiquated theories and predated many Western optics discoveries by hundreds of years.
The camera obscura played a vital role in art and photography for centuries to come. During the Renaissance, the camera obscura helped artists understand the concept of perspective, taking painting from the flat compositions of the Middle Ages to the more lifelike, three-dimensional images we see after the 1400s. In the 16th and 17th centuries, using portable, tented camera obscuras for sketching became popular for both artists and hobbyists.
Starting in the 1700s, many scientists were working simultaneously to find a way to make the images projected by the camera obscura permanent. Their experiments with light project and silver salts, iodide and nitrate led to photography as we know it. Louis Daguerre’s “Daguerrotypes” are perhaps the most well-known form of early photography although amateur scientist William Talbot’s obscure “Talbotypes” were perhaps a more direct precursor to modern film photography.
Throughout history, the camera obscura has played an important role as artists and scientists sought to record and understand the world around us.
The year is 1994.
About 5.6 billion people live on earth, and about 1.25 million of them live in the state of Maine. Less than 20% of the US population has a cell phone; only 14% of Americans report that they use the internet. In Portland, the Sea Dogs are playing their very first season, and the Pirates are about to play their second. The Children’s Museum of Maine has been at its Free Street location for one year, with exhibits on the first floor (the second floor is mostly undeveloped) attracting more than 120,000 visitors. This year, the Museum is opening a brand new exhibit: the Camera Obscura.
Frederic L. Thompson – chair of the capital campaign that raised of $2.5 million for the Museum’s new location – secured a donation from Kodak to build a periscopic camera obscura on the Museum’s third floor, taking advantage of the cupola that tops the historic building. While a simple camera obscura can be created with a box and a pin, Thompson had a vision for a more complex device that would provide a more memorable visual experience. Though our camera obscura still uses natural light alone to create the image, a 12 inch lens inside the cupola helps project a more focused image, and a 20 inch mirror rotates mechanically, offering a 360-degree view.
Depending on light and weather conditions, visitors can observe everything from a flock of seagulls flying over Congress Square to the top of Mount Washington, nearly 100 miles away. A camera obscura of this scope and quality is rare – similar examples can be found in San Francisco, Edinburgh and a handful of other cities – and the exhibit drew the appreciation of Camera Obscura enthusiasts, art historians, photographers and travel writers (the exhibit has been featured in AAA Magazine and the Boston Globe).
The room just outside the camera obscura (called the Focus Room) offered a few hands-on optics exercises and a wealth of historic context for the camera obscura, from Alhazen to the light shows of the early 20th century. However, because of the delicate equipment that moves the rotating mirror, the exhibit’s central component was available only by guided tour, which generally took place twice daily. While popular with older children and parents, some families with younger children – due to short attention spans or challenges of navigating up to the third floor – visited the Museum for years without taking advantage of the hidden gem at the top of the stairs.
The year is 2013.
There are over 7 billion people on earth and 1.3 million call Maine home. 91% of US adults now have cell phones (as do 78% of kids over 12). More than half of those are smartphones, meaning most Americans have internet access in their pockets (85% use the internet in some form). In Portland, locals are enjoying the city’s trendy status thanks to the many accolades it’s received in recent years, from being named America’s Foodiest Small Town to having one of the 12 best children’s museums in the US. The Children’s Museum of Maine is now the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, and it’s celebrating two decades at its Free Street location – as well as a new chapter in the story of one of its most distinctive exhibits.
Knowing that the Camera Obscura was one of the Museum & Theatre’s most versatile exhibits, staff has long been motivated to bring more people to the third floor to see it. By the fall of 2012, the exhibits and education staff had developed some ideas for renovations that could excite younger visitors and inspire the Museum & Theatre’s core audience to learn more about optics and light. The staff again approached Fred Thompson, this time via the Rines/Thompson Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, with a proposal. In early 2013, the Fund funded the Museum & Theatre’s proposal to renovate the exhibits, expanding upon the existing educational content, adding and updating interactive components and getting more visitors – especially young visitors – in the door. The goal: make a 1,000-year-old technology appealing to children growing up in the digital age.
The key to attracting young visitors: accessibility. Logistically, that meant modifying the actual Camera Obscura itself; previously open only during guided tours, the Camera Obscura is now open throughout the day; Museum visitors can get a
peek at Portland from a room with no windows any time they like. To preserve the exhibit and ensure that it will be here for years to come, the rotation controls are locked except during guided tours (still given daily). The projection is far from static, though – the cityscape is constantly alive with activity along Congress Street and beyond. Depending on light and where the lens is directed, visitors can observe everything from a flock of seagulls flying over Congress Square to the top of Mount Washington, nearly 100 miles away.
Accessibility is a psychological and developmental challenge as well, so the two-room exhibit is now filled with bright, new, kid-friendly components. The component that inspires the most dancing, wiggling and giggling is the shadow wall: a bright white wall in a dark room with adjustable colored lights where children can play with their shadow and layer the light to create new colors. The exhibit also features a light table surrounded by low stools attracts toddlers eager to stack blocks with sheer color inserts to play with projection. New model camerae obscurae throughout the exhibit invite visitors to experiment with focus and find the parallels between the inner workings of the eye and the camera.
During the development process, each component was prototyped and observed
in action. Although prototypes may appear rough around the edges, they provide important insights into how an exhibit will appeal to children at different developmental stages and whether it will work at all. Some experiments were taken out of the plan when staff observed that they did not hold children’s interest or inspire them to make connections; other new elements were inspired by offhand remarks or unexpected responses to prototypes during the observation period. Chris Sullivan, the Museum & Theatre’s Director of Exhibits, worked with staff to develop a series of prototype exhibit components; staff observed visitors interacting with the prototypes and used those observations to inform the final exhibit – although Sullivan is hesitant to use the word “final.”
“Our exhibits are always growing and evolving,” Chris says. “Visitors are learning from the exhibits, but we learn from our visitors, too.” The prototyping spiral – a series of exercises in design, testing, analysis and redesign – is an increasingly popular in the museum field, particularly children’s museums and science centers, which thrive on durable, hands-on exhibits that inspire open-ended learning.
At the opening celebration on October 16, the revitalized exhibit seemed to have
met its goal, mesmerizing toddlers and preschoolers (along with a few big kids
visiting from out of town) who darted happily between the shadow wall, the light
table and the camera obscura itself. Those seeking a more historical perspective – typically parents – picked up copies of the new background take-home brochure that details the history of the camera obscura phenomenon.
We will continue to offer guided tours of the Camera Obscura; tours offer a more in-depth history of the phenomenon and include a demonstration of the periscopic Camera Obscura’s rotating view of Portland and beyond. Tours are free with general museum admission and are also available separately for $4 per person. Call 207-828-1234 x231 or visit our calendar of events for scheduled tours.
For more images of the new exhibit Lights, Camera, Color: Exploring the Camera Obscura, visit www.kitetails.org.