The MicroMuseum of Optography

This exhibition ran from 21st September 2008 until 31st March 2009. Derek Ogbourne's small-scale project was our museum's first ever collaboration with a contemporary artist.

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Derek Ogbourne, the brain behind The MicroMuseum of Optography was the British Optical Association Museum's first ever contemporary artist-in-residence and his exhibition was the first in our museum to incorporate video and sound alongside the display of artefacts. It followed on from the artist's earlier show The Museum of Optography shown in Cologne but this show was different and, in particular, it was on a very much smaller scale...positively miniature in fact, and that is what made it so eye-opening!

MicroMuseum of Optogaphy model 2008

Spread across two rooms and interspersed amongst the museum's permanent displays, an exploration of The MicroMuseum of Optography was a journey of discovery as you interpreted the pictorial map and followed your own route round. You started by locating and opening one of the museum's pull-out drawers and then sought out the supplementary exhibits elsewhere on the gallery. What was this? It was a scale model of the original exhibition in Cologne, but at just 95mm wide it was a work of miniature art in itself. When attending this exhibition you needed to look, listen and ponder. Everyone got to see the artist...those were exact replicas of his eyes staring back at you. If your interest had been aroused you could buy the brand new book, The Encyclopedia of Optography, to take home with you.

So what is optography? Derek researched the subject across a wide range of libraries and archives including that of the College of Optometrists. His feature on the topic is to be found elsewhere on our website under the title Optography and Optograms. Basically it concerns the historic belief that the final image seen before death could somehow be retrieved from the retina and fixed in a quasi-photographic process to form a permanent image. Just as a prehistoric insect can become fixed in amber for evermore, so our last visions could be recoverable...or so Victorian scientists thought. The exhibition included a recently rediscovered optogram 'camera'...or did it? It certainly did include a dried out cow's lens that had a poem to tell, though the text was only visible through high magnification and a twenty minute video about the artist's quest to meet the last practitioner who gave the science of optography any serious attention.

Derek Ogbourne writes...

Derek Ogbourne in the BOA Museum exhibition

Derek Ogbourne with his 'camera'
in the BOA Museum exhibition

We enter a museum within a museum; a miniature archive to the obscure and forgotten dark art of optography. An image temporarily bleached in flesh by the light that illuminates things on to our retina, an afterimage. This image, at the moment of death, now hidden in the eyes of death can be held in the living hands, observed temporarily by living eyes, detached from its brain and life that once decoded life’s light. The MicroMuseum Of Optography is the second in my series of shows exploring Optography. My work merges within the confines of the British Optical Association Museum, a little known gem in the heart of the West End of London, housing a collection of nearly twelve thousand outstanding objects and archival items relating to the history of ophthalmic optics (optometry), the human eye and visual aids, as well as the representation of these subjects in art.

In the mid 17th Century, a Jesuit Friar called Christopher Schiener observed an image laid bare on the retina of a frog, a faint, fleeting record of what the eye had been fixed on at the moment of death. The fixing on the retina of the last image seen before death came to be known as an Optogram. (Time-Life, 1970). In late 1870’s Heidelberg, Germany, the physiologist Wilhelm Kühne made the first and most successful visually identifiable optograms recorded as drawings. He also had obtained the only known ‘human optogram’, in Bruchsal. Optography was believed to be a new criminology tool that would help to solve murders, akin to early DNA testing. A condemned young man, two scientists, Jack the Ripper, Salvador Dalí and the only known human optogram are leads I follow within The MicroMuseum of Optography in the quest to uncover the truth and constant fascination behind this dark art.

Part science, part detective story, part history lesson, part psychogeography, but always already, simultaneously, ‘art’, this archival show investigates the human preoccupation with what exists within the very fine line between being and not being. Within every gaze that contemplates death. We imagine death, we imagine when and where. This project is about imagination and death. As a poetic metaphor, optography suggests a series of associations: the eye as camera; the eyelid, its shutter, the moment of retreat into the internal, the virtual and eventually, a real death moment.

My MicroMuseum of Optography has an accompanying book, The Encyclopedia of Optography, The Shutter of Death is published by Muswell Press. It is both an artist’s book and an anthology of writers who have a mutual research interest in optography and optograms—Each writer stakes out new territory in a subject now so obscure it has retreated into myth. They rediscover a secret world that rings of Victorian science fiction. gathering together for the first time pieces of the same jigsaw to make a comprehensive description of the events that led to the forgotten science of optography. Contributors are Dr Evangelos Alexandridis, as far as it is known the only person to have successfully produced optograms in the 20th century, Professor Richard Kremer, historian at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, Dr. Ali Hossaini, author of Vision of the Gods: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Photography, Dr. Arthur B Evans, Professor of French at DePauw University, Bill Jay, author of more than twenty books on the history and criticism of photography, Paul Sakoilsky, artist and writer, Olly Beck, artist and writer and novelist and essayist Susana Medina, author of Philosophical Toys.


Cow lens poem seen through magnifier
Cow lens poem as seen through
a desk magnifier

What the public said about the MicroMuseum of Optography...

Excellent display...optography is thought provoking, FB, Sussex

Informative and spell-binding, AH, New York City

Great drawing material, ET, Kingston on Thames

Astounding, CR, London SW8

Great insight into optography, L & M, Fulham

Inspiring, IR, Wexford, Republic of Ireland

Brilliant for a small space, JA, London

Highly illuminating and professional, JT, St Albans

A highly informative and entertaining presentation, EL, London NW1

More than I expected, AK, London

Great fun, JH, Langdon Hills

Amazing exhibition - will look into it more! AJ, London N15

Very well put together, PL, London NW6

An expanded, you could say 'magnified', version of this exhibition was taken to the Kurpfälzisches Museum der Stadt in Heidelberg, the very birthplace of optography, where it was presented as Derek Ogbourne - Der Letzte Blick (The Last Blink) - Museum of Optography (10 July to 5 September 2010). The College was delighted that such a major exhibition should have come about as a result of experimental displays, on a micro-scale, presented at the College of Optometrists.

In September 2011 Derek launched a new website summarising all his Optography exhibitions so far including mementoes and photographs of the exhibitions themselves.