Looking through the Keyhole: Reinventing the Optical Peepshow

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The technology of popular entertainment is ever-changing and constantly evolving, but if you distill the experience down to its essence, you’ll witness some very similar patterns. Consider pre-cinema optical devices like magic lanterns and nickelodeons, peep shows and raree shows. To some, they might appear to be obsolete museum relics, but if you take a step back, their allure is relevant to some of our most modern technologies.

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La Lanterna Magica, 1815. B. Pinelli

Each of these devices involves the act of peering through an aperture to experience a story. The very act of gazing through a narrative keyhole transports you to another space. It blacks out the rest of the world and allows the imagination to light up. The act of framing changes the environment and generates a stage for storytelling—think of the thrill that comes from simply looking through a camera viewfinder. Nabokov picks up on the transformative effects of an aperture in chapter eight of Speak, Memory where he recalls the fugue-like state of experiencing a magic lantern shows and likens it to the enchantment of looking through a microscope lens at butterfly wings.

Here at the studio, we’ve borrowed from these early devices and experimented with new platforms for unveiling stories. In a physical space, a peep show can dislocate you from reality, further suspending disbelief. They might not act as a great overture to a gallery exhibit—by nature, they are small-group or personal experiences—but they can serve as wonderful grace notes to the greater story.

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The behavior of putting your eye up to a keyhole is an intimate one, and a perfect method for telling stories that trigger the imagination, drawing the visitor deeper into the fold. Especially young visitors. Kids love pressing their noses up to the glass of anything, and if they’re treated with a colorful display of visuals, they will turn away delighted, wanting to share with someone else.

Mathematica

Mathematica Peep show, 1961, from Eames Design. Courtesy and © Eames Office LLC (eamesoffice.com)

One of the key features of peepshows is the element of surprise. As you approach a box or a wall or whatever form its taking, you have no idea what’s contained inside. Essentially, it’s like a musical jack-in-the-box with a story inside instead of a creepy clown. The hidden, as one could say, is always more curious than the exposed.

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SF Moma Institutional Bulletin, Via Museum Nerd

There’s also the element of infectious visitor engagement. Unlike a shared experience, such as a movie theater, where the story is experienced collectively, a peep show has more of a domino effect. You might witness another visitor’s response to the show, whether it be excitement, delight, or surprise, and then be curious about what caused the look on their face.

It should be noted that when we refer to peep shows, we’re talking about the historical variety, not the kind commonly associated with red light districts. Peep shows were popular during the 18th and 19th century and were often experienced as sideshow attractions at carnivals and streetfairs. China, Japan, Italy, France, England and the United States all have rich histories of peep show attractions, it wasn’t until this past century when the word became conventionally associated with the lewd rather than the fantastic.

Historical peep shows would employ a variety of devices to engage audiences: mirrors to give a sense of depth, lighting to increase the drama, and strings and pulleys to effect motion. We’ve borrowed, interpreted, and learned from from these techniques and evolved them in such a way that—even hundreds of years after their invention—they still feel fresh and fun.

See how we’ve employed these forms on three very different projects:

Triangle Room Peep Shows

Historiscope

Raree Show: Walt’s Early Years

—Michael Neault, Content Producer

For more historical information, check out Peepshows: A Visual History, by Richard Balzer

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Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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