Ali Baba's Colourful Treasures and Sumptuous Textiles in Chromolithography by Digital Humanities student, Claire Holland
It was difficult to choose my favourite magic lantern slide, the pictures from the Ali Baba collection in their bright jewel tones colours are all eye catching and intriguing in their intricacy. However, if pressed, my favourite would be the second one in the collection, not only because of the fascination its image holds over me but also because it was the first slide I took photos of. The image in question is the second in a series of twelve telling the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and depicts a man (our protagonist Ali Baba) standing in the middle of a cave surrounded by bags and chests presumably filled with treasures and colourful, sumptuous textiles. In the background there is an opening in the cave revealing trees in the distance.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is a classic tale and has been widely retold and adapted over the years, particular as a children’s fairy tale. Cross referencing with the Museums Victoria magic lantern slides database suggests that this particular creation was made in the period 1900-1920 (perhaps it’s historical context in part accounting for an allure with the middle eastern or Arab world that led to the popularity of an Ali Baba slide set). This image especially draws the viewer in and keeps them enthralled with the tale unfolding. The close perspective on Ali Baba and his brightly coloured treasures is when this story is at, I would argue, peak fairy tale. The slide is so flamboyant that it reaches this mythical or mystical peak of the fantastical which is what makes it so fascinating to look at. Anything could happen in this land of impossible wealth that has been created for us, the rich, warm tones of the image create a comforting and inviting atmosphere.
The process of photographing and creating the metadata for the set of twelves slides as well as the script that was to be read out alongside the projected images when they were performed was quite a different process to other digital humanities projects I have undertaken. I think that is one of the most interesting things about the discipline of digital humanities – it’s broad and mixed method approach ensures that you are constantly tyring new processes and practices.
Metadata cataloguing, whilst often discussed, was not something I think I truly grasped before this project. Metadata – the information about the data, in this case the magic lantern slides, is something that is crucial for a researcher hoping to glean extra information about this particular set. The era the object is created can tell us about the quality of the construction or development items used, the historical fascination with the culture of the Arabian nights and the exotic unknown (this can also be seen in the images with their interpretations of Arab clothing and styles). Which collection the slides originate from and their manufacturer can also inform a researcher about connections between this set and others, hence the relationships between a variety of different data.
So, to me this slide and the story it tells is an important reflection of the process of storytelling, particularly for children. It’s a symbol of enchantment, of the unknown and exciting, of dreams of a far- away land that draws the viewer in and holds them there until the story ends.