A tour of the State Library of Victoria’s little known magic collection uncovers an archive of conjuring memorabilia. By Elizabeth Flux.

WG Alma Conjuring Collection

“Sword Suspension”, a scale model commissioned by magician Will Alma.
“Sword Suspension”, a scale model commissioned by magician Will Alma.

This is the third time Lawrence Leung has visited the WG Alma Conjuring Collection, but even he is lost. We’re standing in a large room, its shelves filled with nondescript boxes, as a specialist librarian carefully arranges items on a table. “I think we’re under the library,” Leung says, pointing to the windowless walls. “Really?” I respond. “But I thought the lift went up?”

We think for a bit longer, but fail to reach a consensus. The path here was long and winding. The room we’re in is not accessible to the general public, and it had taken a week of negotiating permissions and schedules for Leung and me to find ourselves waiting outside an obscure “staff only” door into the State Library of Victoria. Our guide is Tim Hogan, manager of Collection Development and Discovery. “Welcome to the magical mystery tour,” he joked before leading us on a meandering journey into the depths of the building.

The library is undergoing extensive renovations, and the works make it even more labyrinthine than usual. We followed Hogan down a flight of stairs, through an incongruous office space, into a lift, down several passageways, and eventually arrived at a quite ordinary door. I’d been expecting perhaps one or two stacks wedged into a room crammed with other stuff – but everything in this very large room, it turns out, is part of the collection. In the far distance are shelves packed with books – more than 2000 of them. To the right are props in custom-made boxes with tantalising labels. “Handcuffs,” says one long container. “Top hat,” says another.

The WG Alma Conjuring Collection is an extensive archive of magic memorabilia and rare artefacts, bequeathed to the State Library of Victoria by Melbourne magician Will Alma following his death in 1993. Alma was the son of a magician and a magician’s assistant, whose father left the family to pursue his work in America. His mother, not wanting Alma to follow in his father’s footsteps, told him that under no circumstances was he to become a magician. The result was a career spanning 70 years and a life spent collating the objects in this room. “It was in his blood,” Hogan says.

Going against a parent’s wishes is a common theme in the creative industries, which is probably why those who end up pursuing non-conventional careers throw themselves in so completely – they have something to prove. “It seems if a parent says no to your first love, you pursue it stronger,” Leung says after Hogan tells us this origin story. For Alma, after defying his mother, every facet of his life became about magic – performing it, designing props for others in the industry, and preserving its history.

Leung is best known for his television work and stand-up comedy, but during the seven years I’ve known him his interest in magic has been slowly emerging from the private to the public. He is also annoyingly good at it.

Leung’s interest stems from a curiosity about human beliefs and deception, and weaves in surprisingly well with both his writing career and psychology degree. All of his work comes back to unpacking how people trick each other, something he has explored through comedy, television, film, and now a show at this week’s Melbourne Magic Festival.

Hogan leads us to a table where he’s laid out some items of particular interest, and in the centre is Magic Made Easy by David Devant. It was Alma’s first magic book – the one he had to read furtively in order to learn tricks behind his mother’s back. Hogan carefully removes it from its custom-made box and we can see it has been well loved – the spine has been taped to stop the book from falling apart. You can tell Alma’s an archivist. None of the pages are dog-eared.

The books are the only part of the collection available to the general public – everything else is off limits unless you have “a compelling reason”. Even then, there are limitations. Hogan explains that while anyone can look up the books on the library catalogue and request them, they can only view the book in a supervised reading room. “It’s a special collection,” he says. “So you read it in what we call the Heritage Collections room – where you get led in, you get led out, you sign in, you sign out.”

Leung already knows this – he’s been accessing the archive from the age of 14. “I would take a notepad and pen and I’d just transcribe,” he tells me later. Then, after a slight hesitation: “And I’d often have my deck of cards with me.”

As we are led around the shelves, Hogan shows us wands, lantern slides, posters, signed photographs and correspondence with famous magicians. From one box he pulls out a sword, as though it’s the most normal thing in the world.

It’s weird how plain the archive looks on its surface, with everything packed away in light grey boxes, neatly arranged on white shelves. Performative magic is glitzy and loud – distractions and colours are an essential part of making the deception work. Down here is almost the inverse. It’s more representative of the true nature of the art – hours of work going in to making something look effortless. Stripping away the serene outer layer of any of these boxes reveals the eccentricity, lateral thinking and meticulousness required for a trick to be successful.

The unfortunate truth is that the term “performance magic” conjures up one of two images: the man in top hat and tails sawing a leotard-clad assistant in half, or daggy card tricks your uncle does. The truth is it’s neither – magic is a broad church with a strange history.

For the final part of the tour, Hogan brings out a few of the scale models Alma had made to demonstrate the mechanics of certain tricks. In “Sword Suspension” a doll is seemingly suspended by a single blade digging into her upper back. We can look at it from all angles, but walk away none the wiser about how the trick is done. “It’s the art of how people fool each other and how we fool ourselves,” Leung tells me when I ask him what he thinks magic is at its core. “It’s also an antidote to cynicism,” he continues. “Everything is edited, photoshopped or CGI on our screens, but a great sleight-of-hand trick in front of your eyes still looks impossible.”

Our time is up, but the WG Alma Conjuring Collection apparently has one last trick up its sleeve. Hogan directs us to a different door from the one we came in. “It’s faster,” he says. “But it only works one way. You can only use it to go out – you can’t get back in.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 15, 2017 as "Alma matters".

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Elizabeth Flux is a writer, editor and critic.

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