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By Toni Booth on

Shadow stories

It may not look like an item related to the history of photography and film, but this new addition to our collection provided an early way of projecting images.

Bearing in mind that the National Science and Media Museum’s collection comprises somewhere in the region of 3 million objects, it is unusual to find objects from the earlier days of media technology and entertainment that we don’t already have.

So, it can be a real joy to find something which not only doesn’t feature in the collection but that is unusual, beautiful, intriguing and really adds to the story of the development of our subject.

Last year, a group of objects became available, a collection of optical toys, illusions and magic lantern slides which had been put together by one person over many years. The museum was successful in acquiring a small number of items, one of which was this:

Intricately carved gold metal ball
Shadow ball, Science Museum Group Collection

It is a 19th century Chinese shadow ball, made of brass and engraved with images of birds and plants. It is in two parts and hinged across the centre (you can see the clasp which holds it together); inside is a gimballed oil lamp with a small wick, which allows the flame to stay upright and cast shadows across the wall of a darkened room when the ball is rolled.

Understandably, these have occasionally been mis-identified as hand warmers, but as they are made of metal, they’d become uncomfortable to handle pretty quickly.

The shadow ball fits in with several items which are already in the collection, particularly shadow puppets. Together they form part of the pre-history of photography and film whereby ‘capturing shadows’ was not yet possible but using shadows to tell stories was.

Shadow puppets have been used for public shows for thousands of years, originating in India and Java (where the above two are from).

The thin leather puppets are intricately perforated and painted and depict figures in folklore and represent stories from epics such as The Mahabharata. They are manipulated by rods in front of a translucent screen, lit from behind so that the puppet is seen in silhouette. In Java, these shows are known as Wayang Kulit, Wayang being the word for shadow and Kulit for skin or leather which the puppets are made from. The shows would also be accompanied by Gamelan musicians playing traditional Indonesian instruments.

These shows still take place today in many countries. In 2003, UNESCO designated wayang kulit from Indonesia as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

We also have some smaller, quite different examples from China:

I am fortunate to have a much more modern example of a shadow puppet here to keep me company while I work from home. I have never been to Java, but purchased it from a bookshop in Haworth, West Yorkshire.

Colourful shadow puppet

How it got to West Yorkshire is a mystery (probably bought by a tourist as a memento), but I am glad it did and that this elegant form of entertainment, to which modern visual storytellers owe a debt, has survived.

4 comments on “Shadow stories

  1. What an interesting item. I would certainly have overlooked the shadow ball without this explanation and am imagining how ‘special’ it would have looked rolling across the floor of a darkened room.

  2. Ooooh…Yes. That is very cool and interesting.
    I’d also love to see a video of it in action. Is it certain they were used for projecting when rolling? The gimballed aspect makes me wonder if instead they were used/designed for being on boats. ..
    But thats’ probably just me projecting my desires for one ~ due to my boaty home! I strongly suspect you’re right though. But it would be a fab thing to have on a boat trip too. All good stuff. Thank You.

  3. In my 25+ years in studying pre cinema and exploring Shades, Shadowplays, Shadow Puppets etc I had not come across Shadow Balls. Thank you very much for your find and acquisition. I will include them in my work.
    Paul Burns
    An illustrated Chronological History of the Development of Motion Pictures Covering 2500 Years Leading to the Discovery of Cinematography in the 1800’s

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