London: “Smoke and Mirrors” @ the Wellcome

What we have here, for once, is a happy confluence of an exhibition at the Wellcome that I really really wanted to see, and visitors being allowed to take photos of said exhibition (which isn’t often allowed at the Wellcome). Oh happy day (and now I’m going to have the Sister Act 2 version of that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day)!

 

“Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic,” which runs until 15 September, is basically exactly what it sounds like – an examination of how magic works on the human mind – and is free to visit, like everything at the Wellcome. It was not too crowded at the time of my visit, which made for a nice change over the usual packed rooms, though my fellow visitors still managed to park it right in front of every video screen (good I didn’t care about watching most of them anyway, though I did watch a bit of Arthur Conan Doyle talking about Spiritualism. He didn’t sound at all like I expected, as you can probably tell from my expression).

I’m not much of a fan of most magicians anymore (they tend to either be too cheesy or take themselves way too seriously), though I loved watching them when I was little, and walked around with one of those kids’ magic kits forcing my mother to watch me perform tricks (like pulling a handkerchief out of a wand, which was super magical if you ignored the end of cloth that was protruding out of the wand at all times), but I am very into the idea of magic (and magick), and all the paraphernalia that goes along with it. And of course I’m interested in historical magic and seances (though I don’t actually believe in ghosts), so I was especially excited to see the items belonging to Mina “Margery” Crandon and Harry Houdini (there’s a book called The Witch of Lime Street that details their encounter, which I read last October (part of my annual Halloween book season of spooky reads)).

 

The exhibition was ostensibly divided up into three themed sections: The Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism, but as so often happens, I didn’t really see that much of a clear distinction between them, as the exhibition seemed to flow in more of a chronological manner than a themed one. The Medium was about the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was thus my favourite part. There were some cases in the middle that contained an array of objects used in seances, including a rapping hand and a cool handmade Ouija board with a very happy little sun.

  

This sort of segued into a section on Houdini himself, containing a great poster for one of his shows, and a kimono style robe belonging to Margery Crandon, as well as a bunch of pictures of her manifesting her “ectoplasm” (chunks of meat, in reality). I was excited to see that Houdini’s famous bell box was here, though it looked much easier to use than I was expecting. Margery Crandon’s whole conceit was that she channeled spirits using the help of her guide, who was her dead brother Walter. In the early 1920s, Scientific American magazine promised a prize of $2500 to anyone who could demonstrate genuine telekinesis, and though Margery’s husband was a wealthy doctor, she wanted that prize (though she was probably more after the fame). Houdini was on the panel of men sent to test her using a variety of supposedly cheat-proof contraptions Houdini had devised, including the bell box, which she would have to ring whilst tied up inside a large wooden box (large enough so that she could sit comfortably inside; it wasn’t a torture device or anything) from which only her head protruded (also on display. The box, that is, not her head). But after seeing the box, I realise it was much less complicated than it sounded, as you didn’t have to actually reach inside the box to ring the bell, you just had to depress a panel on the top. No wonder she was able to ring it by leaning her head forward out of the box! Not sure why Houdini, the great sceptic, didn’t invent a better system than this, but then spiritualists did make up a lot of rules that had to be followed (like seances being held in the dark, for example, or the entire circle having to hold hands), and were conveniently unable to channel anything if these rules were broken. Makes you wonder how anyone could have believed in them, let alone the people who still do!

 

But let’s put my thoughts on human gullibility aside, and focus on the rest of the exhibition (and yes, I realise that most people who consult psychics are grieving and desperate, and I should really be angry at the people who choose to exploit them, but still). There were a series of short films in here showing how various magic tricks worked on the brain, and I’m sure these were very interesting (and maybe I should have watched them so I could have learned exactly why some people do believe in these things instead of just calling them gullible), but there were a lot of people in front of them and I have a limited attention span (far more entertaining was the early film showing a psychic being unmasked after floating a “ghost” through a room on a fishing line). So I just enjoyed looking at the props on display instead – a gorilla head worn by Derren Brown, the box Paul Daniels used to saw Debbie McGee in half, and Tommy Cooper’s fez.

 

My distaste for magicians does not extend to Derren Brown, whom I quite like, though I haven’t been to one of his shows because I’m terrified he’ll pull me from the audience (probably not, because I wasn’t susceptible to hypnotism when my high school psychology teacher attempted it on the class (much less shady than it sounds), but you never know), and I definitely enjoyed looking at some of his props, including the very cool poster shown above.

 

I know Derren Brown did something similar to this on one of his shows, but there was also a wall showing a series of random statements given to a group of people as their horoscope, who all thought it exactly described them. Of course, the catch is that all their horoscopes were exactly the same! I wish I could say this means I never bother to check my horoscope, but of course I do, if I happen to catch sight of it in the paper.

 

I think my issue, if I have to have an issue (yes I do, it’s the Virgo talking, haha), is that because this exhibition was focused on the psychology of how magic works, it was quite light on history, and I would have really preferred the history! I’m glad there were at least some artefacts here, especially those relating to the Margery Crandon case, but I would have liked to see more historical background behind them because I’m sure not everyone had read about these things beforehand. So it was disappointing in that respect, but I still think it’s an interesting subject and I’ll happily go see pretty much any exhibit about the occult, so I left reasonably content. 3/5.

  

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10 comments

  1. A couple book recommendations for you: “The Night Circus” is a wonderful take on magic. For human gullibility, read Michael Shermer’s “Why People Believe Weird Things.”

  2. We used to play with improvised ouija boards in primary school, which I find quite bizarre looking back. There was always a message which I was probably gullible enough to believe at 10. I was never duplicitous enough to spell the messages out but I’m sure now somebody else was!

    1. I think I had the fear of the Ouija drilled into me at some point in my Catholic childhood, because while I dabbled heavily in Wicca and regularly used Tarot cards and other methods of divination, I always chickened out when it came to Ouija boards. I finally tried one on this awful ghost walk I went on last Halloween, and of course nothing happened. The walk was laughably bad though – there were two “ghost hunters” and some woman pretending to be a psychic who would stay stuff like, “Oh, this is really weird, because I can see the church standing here, but I’m getting a vision of rubble and screaming,” next to a church where the tower very famously collapsed and killed the sexton. And the ghost hunters would send her away before telling us the history of the site, so they didn’t affect her “psychic vibrations.” I found it very difficult to conceal my disdain.

  3. You had one of those magic kits? Man, I’d have been so jealous. Hell, I’m jealous now. I always wanted one – even if wasn’t exactly primo magic.
    Ooh, that rapping hand is good and creepy.
    I’ve always found Ouija boards a bit tantalizing, but have never gotten up the nerve to try one. Same with the old Bloody Mary in the mirror thing. Such a scaredy-cat. Probably because my older sister was so good at practical jokes and freaking me out.
    I don’t think I’ve ever heard Arthur Conan Doyle speak, myself. What’d he sound like?

    1. Yeah, it was pretty old, and I think some of the tricks were missing, but it was still entertaining (for me, not so much for the person watching). I think my grandpa got it at a garage sale for me, like so many of my beloved childhood toys and books.
      My friend and I would always say Bloody Mary twice and then chicken out. The house I grew up in had a windowless bathroom in the basement, so it was pitch black in there when you closed the door and turned the lights off. We’d sit in there to tell ghost stories, and I’d always end up pretty freaked out by the end of it. And we’d always sleep on the couches in the family room during sleepovers, also in the basement, so that would be the toilet I’d have to use if I got up during the night. Really I’m lucky it didn’t turn me into a bed wetter!
      Here’s the interview I watched: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWjgt9PzYEM
      I knew he was born in Scotland to Irish Catholic parents, but for some reason I was expecting him to sound more upper class RP. I like his accent, it’s just not what I thought it would be!

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