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Putnam Museum unveils rare 'magic mirror'

Putnam Museum

A museum in the Quad Cities recently unveiled a rare mirror from Japan that had been sitting in its collection for over 100 years until curators discovered it two years ago.

The circular mirror has a red silk cord attached to it. It's made of two bronze plates, the front plate acting as the mirrored surface.

But there's more to it than meets the eye.

"If you could split these two halves apart, kind of like an oreo, you would find, on the back side of the mirrored surface, a raised image of the Buddha," said Nora Moriarty, curatorial project coordinator at the Putnam Museum in Davenport.

Putnam Museum

She says the museum acquired the mirror in 1914 from Charles Ficke, a former Davenport mayor and art collector.

"He had items from all over the world, he was definitely a world traveller," she said. "He had this attitude that he wanted to give back to the community that gave him so much, and so he basically brought the world to Davenport."

"He actually had a kind of personal museum on the top floor of his house, where he displayed a lot of the items from his travels, before he donated them," Moriarty said. "He made a very large donation at that time of primarily East Asian artifacts."

In 2022, the curatorial team at the Putnam read an article about a 'magic mirror' discovered by the Cincinnati Art Museum. The bronze mirror described in the article reminded them of some of the items in Ficke's collection.

"To figure out whether or not one of these mirrors is a magic mirror, you have to experiment with bouncing light off of the mirrored surface, to see if you can see anything projected in that light."

"Quite a few of the mirrors that we had did not show any evidence of being magic."

Then Moriarty noticed, in a photo of the mirror at the Cincinnati museum, a red silk cord.

"I thought I had seen a red silk cord on one of the shelves, so I went back into collections and found this mirror, basically in the back of one of the shelves, right on the very bottom shelf, kind of hidden away," she said.

"I pulled it out and started to bounce light off of it and there was just enough of a reflection coming off of it that I thought maybe there was something there."

The team worked with the Cincinnati museum and even brought the mirror to a local hospital to confirm their discovery.

"They did some fantastic work figuring out how to use a CT scan on a bronze mirror, because that's certainly not something the machine is designed to do."

"That allowed us to see, for the first time, the detail of the work, of that hidden layer inside the mirror, that hidden image of Buddha."

Putnam Museum
The Putnam Museum and Genesis Health System did a CT scan of the mirror to see the raised image inside.

But there's still a lot that's unknown about the artifact.

"When Ficke acquired this mirror, he did not write down an artist name, a workshop, or even what city he purchased it in," she said. "In his ledger, he wrote down, lets see, I think it says 'magic mirror, very old, Japan, 1904.'"

Moriarty says only two other museums in the country have similar mirrors—the Cincinnati museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

"We think that these mirrors were probably being used for religious purposes, in prayer, but there is a possibility that some of these magic mirrors that were being produced in the mid-1800s were being produced specifically for tourism, so it could be that there's more than one answer here."

But until more are discovered, the specific origins of the mirrors may remain a mystery.

"It's just a matter of figuring out who was making them, and why?" Moriarty said. "And we just don't have that answer yet."

People can see the magic mirror on display at the Putnam Museum this month.

Rachel graduated from Michigan State University's J-School and has a background in broadcast and environmental journalism. Before WVIK, she worked for WKAR Public Media, Great Lakes Now, and more. In her free time, she likes to cook, hike, and hang out with her cat.