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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Utrecht Artifacts, Part 1: The Beelmaterial Spiritische Museum's Boards, Trumpets & Planchettes

After an unfortunately short stay in London, my family and I headed to Amsterdam, narrowly making our flight in the process. There's nothing like rounding the corner dragging your bouncing luggage behind you after a crazy sprint through a ridiculously long terminal, only to see them closing the gates. And my wife did it with a 1-year old strapped to her chest. Whew!

The purpose for the trip was actually the impetus for the entire journey--an invitation to lecture at the Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology conference in Utrecht. While the opportunity to share my knowledge and learn from other scholars of esotericism is enticing on its own, I was also drawn there to document the discoveries of Wim Kramer and his colleagues of the Beelmaterial Spiritische Museum collections, an amazing preserved archive of spirit communication devices and other artifacts dating collected in the 1930s by a Dutch Spiritualism museum.

Each morning, I took a lovely train ride through the countryside to Utrecht to attend the conference. While Amsterdam was a little nerve-wracking for me--it has an awful lot of cyclists zipping through its narrow streets--Utrecht was like a dream: this amazingly preserved medieval town dripping with charm. It was the perfect setting for our gathering.

My first order of business was to discuss the IAPSOP's mission, and how it relates to others doing similar work, such as Walter Meyer zu Erpen and John Reed and the WISE Wiki, Wim's HJBF Archive Projects, Shelley Sweeney and the Hamilton Collections, Eberhard Bauer and Andreas Fischer and their work with the IGPP, and so many others. The esteemed Leslie Price joined us from the College of Psychic Studies, and I got to meet the wonderful Loes Modderman! What an incredible assembly of occult scholars, archivists, and esotericists! I encourage you to download the sizable conference manifest and give it a good read--there are summaries of all of the lectures and profiles of the featured speakers that are well worth exploring.

I recall that as John, Walter, Shelley and I approached the conference gates for the first time, Wim greeted us and asked me if I needed to be in handcuffs--the items were already on display upstairs, you see, and he knew just how excited I was to get my hands--and lens--on these items I'd admired for so long, and traveled so far to see. Luckily, handcuffs weren't necessary, and Wim will be happy to know I didn't sneak in any secret fondling when he wasn't looking. Let's take a look at some of the artifacts from this amazing treasure trove!

The collection contains much more than I was able to document, so I focused primarily on devices, at the expense of numerous spirit paintings, automatic writings, and other artifacts. All told, I photographed a talking board, a spirit trumpet, 3 planchettes, 2 ghost lamps, several spirit slates with preserved writing, a couple of spirit paintings, and a few other assorted surprises, the first set of which we'll examine here.

Wim and his counterparts rediscovered these items in May, 2010, lodged in a box in the attic of the HARMONIA Dutch Society of Spiritualists, in a building that had been the Utrecht chapter since 1922. Before coming to rest in the attic there, the items had been collected and housed by a gentleman in Haarlem (a town near Amsterdam) in his "Spiritualistic Museum," from 1935-1941. He often hosted small exhibitions at HARMONIA's public meetings, and published several short articles in the Dutch Spirirualists' magazine Spiritische Bladen about the items, which is how we know of their provenance.

Little is known about the items and their histories beyond their tenure as museum artifacts. The spirit trumpet is a beauty: a sturdy single-piece horn that--as has become so common in my trumpet documentation--doesn't match the dimension of any other trumpet I've recorded. This isn't all that surprising: if someone wanted a spirit trumpet, particularly a non-telescoping one, they are simple affairs to construct, and in the period could be acquired from a local tinsmith fairly cheaply. But there was also an industry, so it is always difficult to differentiate between commercially-manufactured and locally-produced items. And I believe the latter instance is the case here. The trumpet has four rings of tape with thick luminous paint still attached. Just a beautiful and classic specimen.

The collection contains a couple of talking boards, though one is a later-model Parker Bros added more recently. The other is quite an interesting specimen, however, and one of Dutch origin. At first glance at the above picture, it may seem commercially-produced: its letters arch nicely and uniformly and have a great font, for example. But up close, it's obvious that this is a handmade piece or one produced on a very limited basis locally. The board's bright yellow and glossy black paint is thickly slathered on all dimensions and has a strange texture to it, almost like it dried with a Saran Wrap or gauze-like texture on it. Indeed, it almost still looks wet or tacky to the touch. It is constructed of hardboard. There is no planchette with the board, though it may be that the gold planchette among the trip below was meant for it, though they aren't much of a match. Of course, it has Dutch phrasing: "Ophouden" for "Stop/Cease/Finished" and "Goedenavond" for "Good Evening." And, of course, "Nee" and "Ja," which lends itself rather nicely for the board's "Neeja" nickname.

The trio of planchettes is really what brought the collection to my attention, and what incredibly beautiful specimens they are. All three are handmade, and I was reminded of the handmade CPS planchettes I had just visited in London. I'll examine the pointing planchette first, because it may be a companion to the handmade talking board, though I don't think this is the case. It doesn't match the board in any way, and its construction seems more in line with its older companions, shown below. It is made of plywood with two substantial supports that hold smooth pegged legs of some plastic or bakelight material, and a neat little metal arrow as an index. The gold paint looks distinctly of the spray-paint variety, and is a subtle metallic gold. Whether this plank once had a companion board or was used in more of a tabletop alphabet card capacity is unknown, but it really is a great piece.

My favorite item in the collection is this handmade automatic writing planchette. Its shape is so unusual and distinct, and unlike anything I had seen previously. The hardware is not the most effective. In a topic I've discussed before, it seems a lot of woodshop crafters and even commercial entities--including the Psychic Science Institute discovered in our fresh London foray--resorted to ball-bearing components for wheels that were not made to be smoothly-rolling castors. Wheeled pantographs were obsolete technology by this time, so the petite castors so common to the first generation of planchettes weren't commonly available. So, other hardware had to be used, and it is my belief that these components are repurposed door and cabinet hardware meant to keep closed doors closed, because there is an internal tension--likely a spring--that pushes the ball-bearing up against its housing and keeps it from freely rolling. I have similar hardware in my own home from the 1940s. This tension can be felt when pushing down on the ball-bearing and feeling the springiness beneath. Now, given that it is still a smooth ball-bearing, it likely still glides smoothly over a wooden tabletop or paper, but not quite as smoothly as one might suppose, because the tension keeps the ball from actually turning. There's also a simple little turn-screw pencil aperture that's very effective, and still holding its pencil after all these decades! By far my favorite of the bunch, and one of my favorite planchettes of all time.

The pattern of homemade construction and hardware continues in a third planchette, this one less elegant and fantastical in shape, but no less efficient. Blocky and triangular, this automatic writer seems made from the same stock of wood as its counterpart. Its ball-bearing castors are bulkier and lack the spring-tension of the type likely used for doors or cabinets, and are more likely small furniture castors similar to the "Roll-A-Weight" brand that were sold here in the States in small four-packs.  Without that tension, the ball-bearings would have served their purpose much better, and this would have been the best-working specimen of the bunch. The pencil aperture is just a simple screw and a small metal retainer embedded in the wood, and the pencil use would have to have been small. Beyond its museum origins, no account of its use of messages received through the item have survived, which would have been absolutely incredible, but we're lucky to even have it!

We're luckier to have some surviving script related to other artifacts in the Beelmaterial Spiritische Museum collection, but we'll need to wait for our next installment in Utrecht Artifacts, Part 2: The Beelmaterial Spiritische Museum's Slates, Ghost Lamps, & Miscellany. Stay tuned, folks, for the continuation of our review of this incredible cache of artifacts!

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