Engaging Spiritualists in the Public Sphere

face of a prisoner

A news release promoting an upcoming exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City began:

Ghosts, spirit séances, levitation, auras, ectoplasm … extraordinary photographs of these and other paranormal phenomena will be on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, an exhibition devoted to the historical intersections between photography and the once wildly popular interest in spiritualism.

The leading reference to “ghosts, spirit séances, levitation, auras, ectoplasm” is sensational. It is thus useful for attracting public attention. The news release explicitly noted that the exhibition refrains from evaluating the veracity of the photographs:

Approaching the material from an historical perspective, the exhibition presents the photographs on their own terms, without authoritative comment on their veracity.^

Spiritualists primarily provided communications services between the dead and their living relatives, friends, and admirers. Harry Houdini exposed spiritualists as frauds. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a large, prominent art museum in New York City, exposed spiritualists’ works as important historical and artistic artifacts. Compared to spiritualists, both Houdini and the Metropolitan Museum of Art had greater investments in publicity and knowledge authority.

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