All photos courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
Everyone loved magic when they were little. Grand spectacles and fantastic miracles, magicians seemed to have powers mere mortals couldn’t dream of possessing. We could watch a pencil disappear into thin air and would be convinced that something supernatural was at play.
Everything is different now. As adults, the word “magician” has been replaced by “con-artist” and “trickster”. We pride ourselves in knowing their secrets- the tricks of their trade. We know where the pencil went. Society lost the magic in its life a while ago, and people seem okay with it.
That is what the Wellcome collection’s Smoke and Mirrors seeks to remind everyone about. The magic we have forgotten. This exhibition attempts to bedazzle you with scientific and technological details of the three main elements of Magic- the Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism.
The early 20th century saw exponential growth in mediums and séances. Spiritualists who claimed they could commune with the deceased loved ones grew notoriety. It was at during this era that the renowned magician and escapologist Harry Houdini teamed up with the Society for Psychical Research to expose mediums for their fraudulent ways.
Misdirection is one of the most important techniques magicians must learn. To master this art, trainees must understand how the mind works and how to influence it. The short videos by professor Gustav Kahn explain how magicians employ tactics to manipulate memory, perception, and reasoning to create illusions. These concepts are demonstrated by common, simple magic tricks anyone can pick up.
For the final act, the exhibition brings to light the mysterious world of Mentalism. Many magicians claim to read minds and have supernatural telepathic abilities. Artists used “cold reading” methods to “read people’s mind”. This technique is often used by televangelists today to influence devout followers.
At certain times in the week, the visitors are enthralled by a performance by professional magician-turned-psychologist Mathew Tompkins. In this show, he performs iconic magic tricks, while explaining the fundamental concepts used by him in performing them.
People like being skeptics. It gives them a sense of superiority. As adults, we detest being deceived. This is why many people believe that magic and magicians have no place in the world of science and modern technology. Science can tell us where the card went. No longer is the audience powerless against these conjurors.
These people are missing the point. Belief in magic is for kids, but this exhibit shows that even adults should appreciate the art of manipulation and illusion that these artists use. It is fascinating to see tricks used centuries ago still being applicable today. For children, this exhibition should be eye-opening. They will be amazed at the ancient tools used by magicians to create their “magic”. For adults, this exhibition may love this exhibition for itself. Seeing this age-old craft being perfected to manipulate and trick different parts of the brain makes the audience believe something supernatural is at play. The practical application of magic techniques in day-to-day life by non-magical professionals is particularly riveting.
Professor Tompkins’ magic show was truly remarkable. His tricks were simple, the audience had just gone through an exhibit’s worth of different tactics used by magicians. Yet no one could spot his tricks coming. I felt like I was a twelve year old again- completely amazed and the man’s sheer ability to conjure things out of thin air.
Magic can only be created with belief. However, the magic is not in pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The real magic is in making the audience believe that you have pulled a rabbit out of a hat. One does not need witchcraft to appreciate the magic. The tricks and deceit used are magical in themselves. The Wellcome collection’s Smoke and Mirrors enthralled the ever-curious, wide-eyed child inside me, while also giving the pragmatic, tactical adult plenty to appreciate and ponder over.