Musée Lumière: A window on some of the origins of film

Musée Lumière
Musée Lumière

If you live within the orbit of American culture you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film industry began and evolved solely in Hollywood, California, but that’s not the case. True, America has been the perpetual winner of the international box office wars for the past several decades. And it still is. But a visit to the Musée Lumière (Lumière Museum) in Lyon, France will disabuse you of the notion that Hollywood was the sole parent of motion pictures.

I’m Canadian. That puts me well within the American cultural orbit. Nevertheless, thanks to some conversations with a relative who is a film studies professor, before I visited the Musée Lumière I was already aware that other countries, notably France, played important roles in the origin of film. I’m embarrassed to admit that, had it not been for that relative, I probably would have remained ignorant of France’s role in the birth of film until my visit.

The museum is in what was the Lumière family home, on the site of what was known as the “Lumière factory.” “Factory” is somewhat misleading. If I understand it correctly, it was basically a large, multi-building film studio that also included the Lumière family home.

All that’s left of the “factory” are the home and one large shed. At its height, however, it was much larger. This was evidenced by one of the first exhibits in the museum, a scale model of all of the buildings in the factory.

Musée Lumière: A window on some of the beginnings of film

Lumière "factory"
Lumière “factory”

The other exhibits were fascinating. They included old—including some of the earliest—cinematographic equipment. For example, there was a magic lantern, which, in truth, may not qualify as cinematography equipment because it projected single images painted on panes of glass. The operator of a magic lantern generally told a story to go along with the images.

There was also a “photo gun” on display. In its day, it captured 12 images a second. The photo gun was invented in 1882. And, yes, it looked very much like a gun or, to be specific, a rifle.

The Lumière brothers, Antoine and Louis, were quite inventive chaps. Louis Lumière developed the first cinématographe, based on the design of another French inventor who couldn’t afford to carry the design forward beyond the invention phase.

To be fair to the Americans, this was not the first motion picture device. Thomas Edison invented the kinetograph (a motion picture camera) and kinetoscope (a motion picture viewer) sometime earlier. However, the kinetoscope was a peep show that could be viewed by only one person at a time. The cinématographe, on the other hand, combined a motion picture camera and projector. And because it was a projector, rather than an individual viewer, larger audiences could enjoy the show.

Colour Photography

Photo gun
Photo gun

On his own, Louis Lumière also invented autochrome, the first colour photography. In total, the Lumière brothers registered about 200 patents. Not all of them were related to cinematography. Some were for medical devices and others were for enhancements to phonograph equipment.

Beyond the displays of old cinematographic devices, the museum included screens running clips of old movies. There were also some old film posters on display. The Interesting thing about the earliest of those posters was that they did not display the film’s title. The only text on them was simply “Cinématographe Lumière.” Because it was a complete novelty, people went to see the new spectacle of the cinema, not a particular film.

Rounding out the museum was the bedroom of Antoine Lumière, decorated with period furniture and clothing.

My verdict on the museum: If you’re in Lyon and have some time to spare, even though it’s not in the central tourist district, you should absolutely make some time to take the tram out to the Musée Lumière.

Note: All of the text accompanying the displays was exclusively in French. If, like me, you are unilingual and that one language is not French, get one of the audio guides available at the front. The audio guide is available in English. Even if you do read French, get the audio guide because it provides a lot more information than appears on the text attached to the displays.

Been there? Done that? Do tell.