Nineteenth-Century Automata and Our Visual Culture Today

In the summer of 2018, I was the collections intern for the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey. I worked alongside two other interns, doing a little bit of everything—registrar work, research, and weekly demonstrations in the gallery. When I returned to Colby and met Professor Juliet Sperling, I was struck by how my internship was related to her area of study. Professor Sperling is an Americanist at Colby who specializes in “moving images”—a term she uses to describe automata and mechanical instruments like the ones in the Guinness Collection at the Morris. Through teaching and research, she explores the way “seeing and touching” were intertwined with American art in the nineteenth century. I had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Sperling to discuss her work, and in doing so found many connections to my own experiences working at the Morris Museum.

Marina Takagi (center) with her fellow interns as they assist with the deinstallation of the exhibition A Cache of Kinetic Art: Curious Characters at the Morris Museum. Photo courtesy of Marina Takagi.

Murtogh D. Guinness (1913–2002) was a member of the prominent Guinness family. Using his family’s wealth, he devoted his lifetime to collecting mechanical musical instruments and automata, storing them in two penthouses in New York City. Mechanical musical instruments were prominent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and became popular in America with the Industrial Revolution. At first a luxury item, these instruments were used as home entertainment for the wealthy. Gradually, they became more portable and cheaper to produce. At one point, Sears even sold mechanical musical instruments. Automata are mechanical dolls and toys (think: horror-movie windup dolls) that became popular in nineteenth-century France. After Guinness’s death, the Morris Museum was fortunate enough to acquire over seven thousand pieces of his collection, from the instruments and dolls themselves to the music sheets and rolls needed to operate them.

My favorite aspect of my internship was being able to interact with the instruments during the weekly demonstration. A colleague and I would begin the tour of the collection with a background on who Murtogh Guinness was, and a basic overview of what mechanical musical instruments are. Then we would showcase three instruments from the gallery. My favorite instrument to showcase was the Limonaire Orchestrophone, created in 1914. Made to be played at carnivals and festivals, this instrument is extremely beautiful yet loud. The reaction I got from the audience was the best part—everyone would get up and dance along while the instrument played. All I had to do, thanks to the updated technological mechanics, was flick a switch and insert a cardboard punch card, which was the “score” for the Limonaire.

Limonaire Orchestrophone (1914). Photo courtesy of the Morris Museum.

Professor Sperling studies “moving images” because they are often neglected by art historians but provide important links to the visual arts we see today. “I came to the topic of moving images in an unexpected way,” she told me when I asked her how she became interested in the topic. “I was taking a class in grad school about mass visual culture in the beginning of the nineteenth century. I came across this really interesting image of a fashion plate for an illustrated periodical from the 1840s with the head cut out so that you can see how the woman’s complexion looked with different colored dresses.” These objects were unique in that they were produced to be integral parts of everyday life, and therefore were not originally considered art. Rather, material culture and visual culture of the nineteenth century underpinned entertainment, education, and science in America.

Early moving images also help us study how Americans entertained themselves with interactive objects like mechanical dolls, self-playing instruments, and pop-up books. Professor Sperling told me about anatomy books, in which people used flaps on pages to explore images of the human anatomy. As part of her job, she mentioned that she would go into people’s attics to find these items. She has also visited the American Antiquarian Society, collectors, and other scholars.

By studying early moving images, art historians can get a sense of middle-class entertainment. This field also showcases the sophistication moving images have—the amount of mechanical engineering and science behind automata, mechanics, and moving images is astounding. Unlike the paintings in a museum, these works have tactile histories, and this element of physical interaction offers a completely different viewing experience today. Furthermore, we live in a culture in which moving images are all around us, and Professor Sperling’s research helps us understand their history and origins.

The automata and instruments at the Guinness Collection and the kinetic art that Professor Sperling studies, although not considered art when they were created, were more approachable and accessible than the “fine art” of the elite. Observing nineteenth-century moving art can actually tell us a lot about our own culture, and the development of contemporary art, such as performance art. “It shows how everyday things—objects from mass media, magazines, education, and science—really intersected with all of the sophisticated art worlds that we usually talk about in art history,” states Professor Sperling. “I think it gives us a chance to look at the stories that art history normally tells, but through different eyes.”