Magic lantern shows through a macroscopic lens: Topic modelling and mapping as methods for media archaeology

This is a pre-print version of an article that will be published in a special issue of Early Popular Visual Culture. This article explores trends across Lucerna, an online web resource, by combining two digital approaches: topic modeling and geospatial mapping. Topic modeling identifies words that occur most frequently together in a large corpus of texts through a form of statistical analysis. Using this method, I studied 2,000 descriptions of magic lantern shows given in between 1874 and 1903. While there were records from Canada, India, and New Zealand in this data set, most of these lantern shows occurred in England. The groupings of words, or “topics”, reflected the prevalence of the Church Army, Band of Hope, and Sunday Schools in Lucerna’s textual record. Mapping these patterns revealed that descriptions of magic lantern shows were relatively uniform across the UK, suggesting that magic lantern shows in urban and rural spaces were represented similarly in periodical literature. Since the topics did not vary by region, I studied how the most prevalent topics differed by host organization and how they changed over time. Descriptions of lantern shows given by evangelistic organizations shared vocabulary with those hosted by Sunday Schools and temperance societies. Individual terms like “friends”, “tea”, “dissolving”, and “interesting” appear in descriptions of lantern shows given by the Church Army, Sunday Schools, and the Band of Hope. Placing these terms in within a topic reveals that these terms appear in different combinations depending on the organization hosting the lantern show. For example, “friend” is statistically more likely to occur alongside “interesting” and “dissolving [view]” in an educational context than in a description of a show given by the Church Army. The fact that evangelistic shows tended to avoid the language of entertainment reflects earlier discourse about the magic lantern on the mission field. Missionaries like David Livingstone emphasized the usefulness of the lantern in their published accounts of their lantern shows, yet their journals and diaries often foreground the value of the lantern as an entertainment. The decline in topics related to Sunday Schools over time corresponds with the rise of educational lantern lectures, particularly those given by secular institutions like the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Yet, the inheritance that these secular shows inherited from their precursors in the Sunday School is preserved in the inclusion of “Chinese” in a topic describing Frederic Rowley’s lectures at the RAMM. Although Rowley never presented a lecture on China, descriptions of his shows resemble the geographical lectures given the Church Army and in Sunday Schools with the assistance of Newton and Company’s “China and the Chinese”. This study suggests that topic modeling can be used to excavate the performance history of lantern shows by foregrounding latent linguistic similarities in published descriptions of these events.
Pre-Cinema, Digital Humanities, GIS, Topic Modeling
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