The Illusionarium is a surreal steampunk themed magic show and museum designed by award-winning Broadway artist David Gallo and produced for Norwegian Cruise Line in 2014. As a freelance writer, I helped to enhance the experience by developing imaginative and humorous anecdotes to support the artifacts that were on display in the exhibit. Below are 5 sample story panels written for the exhibit:
Paris, France, 1688 – 1701
Former chef turned illusionist Jean Luc Mirage was one of the first stage magicians to adopt the use of the Magic Lantern, an image projector that could be manipulated to produce dazzling special effects. Mirage gained national attention with his performance A Taste of Magic (1692), in which he projected a gigantic “Swiss Cheese” that was so convincing that several hungry audience members had to be restrained from leaping onto the stage. The Frenchman’s mouthwatering illusions earned him numerous awards and critical acclaim between the years 1693 and 1697, but his success would be short lived as increasingly perceptive viewers, including renowned cheese connoisseurs, began to find “holes” in his act. The intense public scrutiny eventually caused the magician to lose his appetite for the spotlight. In 1701, Mirage retired to the countryside where he studied philosophy and founded the infamous school of anti-magic known as Disillusionment.
Cambridge, England, 1885 – 1893
Professor Margaret Pengraves, a daring alchemist and bibliophile (book lover), was credited in 1994 with inventing one of the first forms of invisible ink, after records were uncovered in the basement of her former home that showed proof of her discovery. During the late 19th century, the reputedly mild-mannered professor conducted a series of ill advised, highly uncontrolled experiments involving the combustion of noxious gases and deadly dyes, which yielded astonishingly successful results. Ms. Pengraves’ work went unrecognized for more than 100 years, largely because no one was able to see it.
Oxford, England, 1894/ 2014
The ornaments seen here were salvaged from an explosion that occurred during a time travel experiment inside Oxford’s Hall of Magical Sciences. Due to a slight miscalculation, Professor Manu Ganesh’s mind was transported to the year 2014, but his body remained in 1894. This created an awkwardly paradoxical situation for the professor, who subsequently became convinced that he was living in the future. According to reports at the time, Ganesh would wander around campus in the middle of the night, searching for a place that had “Wi-Fi connection.” And just as baffling were his class lectures, in which he made frequent references to Google, Facebook, Twitter and other things that didn’t yet exist. Researchers and experts have only recently begun to make sense of the professor’s words and behavior. Robin Leapyear, who currently teaches on the subject of trans-era travel, described Ganesh as a forward thinker who was literally “ahead of his time.”
This diverse collection of artifacts was a gift of the late Phillip K. Prophet (1843-1912), an eccentric American businessman and inventor who had amassed the collection during his ten years of travel around the globe. In the late 1880s, Prophet had made plans to manufacture and sell The Ultimate Fortune Teller, a steam-powered machine that would combine psychic wisdom from dozens of different cultures to generate “perfect predictions of a person’s future.” The ambitious venture was far from a success, however, as Prophet poured thousands of dollars into a prototype that spit out fortunes like this one:
Be wary of a long life, and attend to the financial matters in your stomach. You will give birth to three suns and two moons, and you will marry your dog ten times. Your bad luck will soon pay off.
In light of his failure, Prophet learned an important lesson that he hoped to share with future generations. Each one of these time-tested traditions – from the symbolic Tarot card readings of the ancient Sufis to the fortune-telling sticks of Ancient China – has it’s own unique power that should be respected and preserved. By attempting to improve these practices, extract parts from them, or mix them together, they lose their magic.
Egypt, 1875 – 1891
Alexandra T. Hunter was an adventurer-prodigy and tomb raider of the late 19th century. She is most readily identified by her trademark explorer’s hat, which she wore on all of her expeditions. The hat was passed on to young Alexandra by her grandmother, Agatha Hunter (herself an accomplished explorer), who told her to wear it for good luck.
Alexandra officially began her quest for magical artifacts at the age of 12. By 18, she had uncovered over a hundred buried treasures throughout Africa and the Middle East. Her fascination with the mysteries of ancient Egypt led her to conduct numerous expeditions in the region. It is said that the artifact she coveted most was the mythical crown jewel of Queen Nefertiti – a tiny stone which, when placed on the crown of the head, would allow a person to receive divine guidance. As the story goes, Alexandra searched everywhere for the jewel, and at one point, became convinced that what she was seeking did not exist. Then, by fate, during a journey back to England, Alexandra was caught in a sandstorm that swept her hat off her head and flung it into the dessert. Later, when she went to retrieve the hat, she found it was still in good condition – except for a hidden flap that had come loose inside, revealing a small translucent gem. Alexandra recognized this as the crown jewel of Nefertiti and realized that she had been wearing it all along! Evidently, the young woman had been guided by a higher power ever since she donned her grandmother’s “lucky hat.” As the famed explorer wrote in one of her journals, “I can’t really explain it, but somehow, whenever I want to find something, I always seem to be led to the right place.”