For a few glorious months in ’20s America, spiritualists, magicians and scientists were locked in a fevered struggle for the truth about life after death. Escapologist Harry Houdini was hellbent on debunking medium Mina Crandon, so he embarked on a series of experiments trying to replicate the ectoplasm-spouting effects of her seances. But, as the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ ingeniously shows, Houdini and Crandon were spooks of a feather: both were bamboozling the American public by exploiting psychological quirks, long before scientists got round to explaining them.
Three short videos by Professor Gustav Kahn spell out the shortcomings of perception, reasoning and memory using simple tabletop magic tricks. The psychology is fascinating, but it all boils down to the fact that human beings aren’t half as observant, smart or good at remembering things as they think they are. The brain has evolved its own set of priorities governing how it processes information, and they’re easily exploited, whether that’s by a magician, a medium, or an astute politician.
If this all sounds dry, it’s totally not. The hard stuff is interspersed with some gorgeous bits of kitsch from magic’s history. The faces of nineteenth-century celebrity conjurers beam down from vast posters in rooms that are stuffed with mail-order magic catalogues and home conjuring sets; relics from the era when capitalism was gradually replacing God as humanity’s prime means of making contact with the divine. And the section on mediums is a goth’s dream, with its ghost-riddled ‘spirit photographs’ and tarnished devices for resurrecting the dead.
As well as arguing that science and magic are close allies, rather than sworn enemies (sorry, The Enlightenment) this exhibition also makes some slightly scary points about how easily people’s brains can be exploited. It nudges you towards humility and scepticism: get seduced by the glitter, then see everything you think you know vanish in a puff of smoke.