Museum of Natural History project

To my great pleasure, my professional projects occasionally overlap with my No Trash Project. I’ve mentioned before that I work on an experimental film series called The Magic Lantern Cinema. The name is taken from an early image projection technology that was developed in the 17th century. My co-organizers and I program monthly screenings around Providence. We present short films in both digital and celluloid film formats. I recently had the opportunity to work with the Museum of Natural History to program a show in their planetarium. Among the museum’s archive holdings is an extraordinary collection of nearly 6,000 antique glass magic lantern slides. Amazingly they also have a magic lantern projector that was donated by a volunteer.

For several months I worked alongside my friend and co-organizer Josh, perusing the contents of the collection, selecting slides to be projected against the star field on the dome of the planetarium. We also selected short films on 16mm to screen next to the slides. Two musicians programmed an electronic soundtrack that they performed live during the show.

While working in the attic archive (behind the clock on the face of the old building) I discovered fantastic images of plants and fossils, insects and mammals, geological forms and celestial objects. I learned that the slides were originally used for educational purposes. The public came to view slides during museum lectures.

Choosing images from this incredibly rich collection to screen during an hour-long program was a difficult task. We needed guidelines to curate by. Since we would be projecting a throw of still and moving images onto the rotating star field illuminated by the museum’s Zeiss star projector, it seemed appropriate to imagine that we were projecting from Earth into outer space. Inspired by the Voyager Interstellar Spacecraft mission, a subject that’s touched on in the Museum’s regular Saturday planetarium program, we began to suppose that we were programming a show for an extra terrestrial audience. What images would we choose to represent our world (natural and manmade) if we had the attention of alien life? And how would our selections of the slides change if we had never in our lives encountered the forms contained in them?

So we began to do some research on Voyager 1 and 2 to find out how the contents of the time capsules were chosen. In an intro by Carl Sagan in the book Murmurs of Earth, Sagan talks about organizing a group of scientists to offer advise on how to determine the messages on board such interstellar time capsules. Barney M. Oliver, the vice-president for research and development at the Hewlett-Packard Corporation at the time suggested that because the chance of such an encounter is so infinitesimal, the real function of such a project is “to appeal to and expand the human spirit, and to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence a welcome expectation of mankind.”

This quote really grounded my thinking about the slide selection. Because our real and present audience would be human, conversations between Josh and I moved into what the experience of this kind of show could offer our own species. What we came to was the notion that by projecting these images of quotidian objects and familiar forms of life in the context of such a unique program, we may be able to defamiliarize them, and ultimately provide a chance at a renewed relationship to the things pictured.

Okay, so if you’re still with me you may be wondering what all this has to do with reducing waste. And I promise I’m getting to that. Another thing that struck me in Carl Sagan’s intro was when he writes of the uniqueness of our planet. Though scientists think now that it is likely that there are innumerable other planets in the universe that have seen the origins of life and even the evolution of life forms to the development of intelligence, our Earth is like no other. He writes that, “creatures on such other planets would be astonishingly different from human beings or any other such creatures that inhabit our little planetary home, the Earth. Like history, evolution proceeds in a multitude of small and unpredictable steps, the variation in any one of which producing profound differences later on.”

For me, contemplating that uniqueness does serve to heighten my appreciation for the natural world around me. I think it’s important to put ourselves through exercises that prompt us to reconsider the things that we encounter daily. Pairing slides of celestial objects with images of elements from this world allowed me to practice the wonderful exercise of zooming way in and out on planet Earth, from geological forms of the Grand Canyon to the hairs on the head of a bumble bee. I feel it’s helping me condition my brain to zoom in and out on the problem of personal waste production, from the piped hills of a modern day landfill to the synthetic bristles on my compostable toothbrush.

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