Thirty years or so ago, the Museum of the Moving Image opened on London’s South Bank. Funded privately then operated by the British Film Institute, the museum traced the history of motion pictures from ‘pre-cinema’ days to the blockbusters of 1988. It was notable for the many rare and unique objects on show, for the copious film clips (many projected using actual film), for its cast of actor-guides, its dedicated cinema, and for the general breadth of its ambition. Eleven years later it closed.
I never quite worked out why it was shut down, and now after years of discussion with those involved and with the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom of years, I still don’t know why. Mostly it must have been money. So it was that all the guidebooks on London had to be rewritten, though the occasional London tourist does still come in search of MOMI, wondering what on earth can have happened to it.
Well, they could always go to St Pancras station, catch the train into Kent and journey to the pleasant seaside town of Deal. If they proceed down the high street then turn right at Stanhope Street, on the left-hand side they will see an ordinary pebble-dashed house bearing the sign Kent Museum of the Moving Image. Well, well. So that’s what happened to MOMI.
Kent MOMI, which opened in 2018, is an oddity, but a charming one. It is the creation of one of the original founders of MOMI, David Francis, formerly Curator of the BFI’s National Film Archive and Chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress, and his wife Joss Marsh. Using objects mostly from Francis’s personal collection, it fills the two floors of the house with three main exhibitions: one on the theme of the shadow, one on the Royal Polytechnic institution, and one on the posters of Ealing Studios. There is a office and shop where you buy your ticket, and a patio area out the back for teas.
What is on offer is very obviously not the whole of moving image history – indeed the greater part of it does not touch on moving images at all. Instead the magic lantern and other Victorian optical entertainments predominate, illustrated both by the machinery and by a wide range of original documents. The section on the shadows does weave this material in with a smattering of the cinema years, though there is not much on show beyond the 1940s. The Polytechnic section is dedicated to the centre for public learning, now part of the University of Westminster, which was such a significant part of London’s intellectual life in the nineteenth century, culminating in the first project film show in the UK in 1896. It shares the upstairs area with a gallery-like display of Ealing Studios posters. So, as surveys of moving image history go, Kent MOMI is quite select.
It feels odd at first to be wandering through an ordinary house, but you soon adjust and start to relish the informality of it. It is a house stripped of domestic furniture, of course, and in its place are display cases, posters and screens. There are some objects that visitors can handle (a Zoetrope, for example). You can sit down on a sofa and watch clips of Ealing films.
It was the display cases that made the journey worthwhile for me. They are large, packed to the brim with objects of every kinds, and have next to no labels. An expert would know some of what was on show (and would be thrilled by the rarity of much of it), but the rest of us can only stare in wonder. There is a laminated guide by each case that gives you an essay on the subject, which probably connects to much of what you can see and if you have the time and inclination to work this out, but I doubt that many do.
It was this managed chaos that so appealed. Museums and exhibitions are so keen to draw our attention to the significance of what is set before us. Of course, it can be useful to be told what the name of something is, or its date, but it is quite liberating to be freed of such guidance. All you can do is marvel, which does feel to be very much in the spirit of the exhibition of lanterns, panoramas, dioramas, shadow figures and such like in their time. Maybe there was some lecturer in the background, insisting that we appreciate the significance of what was being projected, but were we really paying attention? No, we were too busy staring.
Passing through Kent MOMI, I was reminded of the marvellous opening chapter of Balzac’s novel The Wild Ass’s Skin, which features a phantasmagorical visit to an antique shop. What starts out as reasonably realistic account of the higgledy-piggledly arrangement of treasures becomes increasingly fantastical, as history and legend appear and merge into one hallucinatory dream:
All the countries on earth seemed to have provided some remnants of their sciences, a sample of their art. It was a kind of philosophical midden in which nothing was missing, not the reed pipe of the savage, nor the green and gold slippers of the seraglio, the yatagan of the Moor, nor the idol of the Tartars. There was even a soldier’s tobacco pouch, a priest’s ciborium, the plumes of a throne. And these monstrous tableaux were subjected to a thousand accidents of light by the odd multitude of reflections caused by the mixture of tones, the abrupt contrasts of light and shade. The ear believed it could hear smothered cries, the mind imagined it saw unfinished dramas, the eyes perceived half-hidden glimmers of light. And finally a persistent dust had settled in a light veil on all these objects, whose multiple angles and numerous twists and turns produced the most picturesque effects.
I wanted more of this. Kent MOMI makes some concessions towards being a conventional museum by categorising its collections into themes, but if only it could break free of the obligation to educate and simply display profusion, the collector’s enthusiasm run riot. Like Balzac’s antique shop, the delight would lie in being lost within a world whose objects, seemingly disordered, would reveal an infinity of unfinished dramas. My eye revelled in being led from theatrical poster to photograph to cartoon to booklet to optical device to manuscript to diagram to lantern slide to objects whose meaning entirely eluded me. I still gained a fine sense of a world opening its eyes to a set of wonders. Balzac writes of his hero Raphael’s visit to the antique shop:
Haunted by the strangest shapes, by marvelous creations belonging to the borderland betwixt life and death, he walked as if under the spell of a dream.
Away with labels and instruction; instead give us more profusion, more confusion, more chances to dream.
- Kent MOMI is located at 41 Stanhope Road, Deal. It is open all year, Friday-Sunday and Bank Holidays, 11 – 6 (May to September), 12 – 5 (October to April)