Raree-shows in Couven Museum

I mentioned, rather enigmatically, some ‘other thing’ related to mirrors that we has seen in the Couven Museum, and now you can also see what I meant; or may be you can’t.

Apparently, “the museum boasts one of the largest surviving collection of the ‘raree shows’ in Germany. Now, what is ‘raree-show’? The word comes from ‘rare show’, or rather ‘rarity show’, and for centuries it was of the most popular form of public entertainment – not only in Europe, but also in other parts of the world too.

This is how it might have looked, some two hundred years ago:

Basically, the owner of the construction that is shown here (a raree-man) was letting people to see some pictures inside his box (a raree-box) in exchange for the fee, and this was all called raree-show. It may look very primitive to us today, but for centuries it was amazingly entertaining for people.

In these raree-boxes people had a chance to see something that wasn’t readily available otherwise – here, for instance, children are looking at the images showing the Battle of Waterloo:

It was, of course, also used to show ‘dirty pictures’, or adult entertainment, as we would call it today (by the way, the modern term ‘peep show‘ comes from this very format of entertainment, it was another name for the raree-shows. Today we used with a slightly different meaning.

But besides the content, the format of these shows, or media, if I’d use the McLuhanian terminology, was also an important factor (=’the message’, as we all know).

The technology of these show-boxes was evolving with time – in the beginning this could be indeed just a simple box with a few images:

But even in this most simple version such deck of images was able to create a semi-3D-world inside of this box which also could be enhanced by adding a light source from behind (making it similar to our contemporary displays) and/or adding a lens in front. As often with immersive media, you can’t have the experience by simply observing how other people do it, you need to immerse into this experience – and to find yourself in a strange and surreal world:

It is believed that the Chinese performers were the first who managed to paint images on glass plates. The decks of such plates created interesting semi-translucent worlds – though also made the boxes much heavier:

Later the glass was replaced by plastic films. Even more recently, they also managed to make these images moving, in one way or another, paving the way to contemporary cinema.

Ok, this all may sound very interesting, but per se does this have to do with mirrors? They used glass plates (or lenses), but not really mirrors.

Mirrors were used in very particular type of raree-shows (or rathe raree-boxes), one we would call periscopic today:

The use of mirrors allowed one to make these boxes more compact and vertical, rather than horizontal. And these are exactly the format of raree-shows we saw in the Couven Museum:

In general the reputation of these peep-shows wasn’t very high – not only were they known for their somewhat sleazy content, but also there was the whole context of  street shows with all the related vices which were not exactly seen as decent by many people.

At the same time, as often happens with media technologies, the same tools had been used both to spread the sins and to combat them. Raree-shows were actively used by both early day pornographers and religious activists alike.

The shows presented at the Couven Museum are a representative assortment of mythological, religious and theatrical scenes. Those we saw (there are about ten on display at the moment) are fairly decent (and I don’t know if the museum also has the examples of less moralistic ones in its posession).

Below just a couple of examples I managed to take pictures of:

You can see here that the mirror also reflects part of the street behind the window.

The last one I have shows a religious scene, the Adoration of the Magi.

You may think that these things are all in the past. For most part that is true, but surprisingly, you may see these performers on the streets of some cities even today:

Although I guess presentations of raree-shows today might be more about demonstration of the history of technology, not just showing a set of pictures in the box.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), right in front of the museum we saw an apparatus somewhat resembling these peep-shows:

What it does is basically shows an old tower, a part of the Rathaus (city hall) that stands right in front of this device:

It doesn’t of course, just show this tower, it adds a certain amount of information, but it still inevitably resembles these archaic peep-shows. I always had the feeling that we could augment reality in a more elegant way these days.


PS: The text was also edited by R. – thanks a lot! – that helped to avoid many silly mistakes I made the early version (though I am afraid my explanations can still be not very clear.)


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