WEARING a long red coat, white gloves, and World War I medals, the rotund usher lines up moviegoers in front of a gleaming 1930s Odeon theater lobby. He politely but firmly warns a waiting couple that neither alcohol nor necking is permitted. Then, with a flourish, he opens the polished chrome-and-glass door and wishes the group a good time. This scene is one of several memorable moments awaiting visitors to London's Museum of the Moving Image. Since opening its doors last September, the museum has celebrated the twin arts of international cinema and television.
With some 50 exhibition areas, this is part museum, part fun house, part workshop. In one gallery, kids draw their own animated cartoons. In another, visitors deliver the evening news. Facts, figures, and pictures seem to adorn every wall.
``We've tried to steer between pure fantasy and total education,'' says coordinating designer Neal Potter. ``In its scope and approach, there is no other museum in the world quite like this.''
The museum is across the river and around the bend from Parliament at London's South Bank Centre, which is also home to the National Film Institute. The building sits directly beneath the Waterloo Bridge, fitting so snugly that architects had to provide an access way for the span's annual inspection.
The idea came more than 10 years ago from Leslie Hardcastle, who now serves as co-director along with David Francis, curator of the National Film Archive. Mr. Hardcastle's vision was to create a museum that captured not just the history but the spirit of the film and television industries. ``We wanted to tell the story of how man learned to paint with the light,'' he says.
Visitors embark upon a journey comparable to Dorothy's visit to Oz. The story essentially begins in the 19th century, where a wealth of inventions exploit a then newly discovered principle called persistence of vision. The museum's thaumatrope, for example, consists of a large disc with a bird on one side, a cage on the other. Spin it, and the two images merge.
Other early inventions include Eadweard Muybridge's zoopraxiscope disk, which proved that a trotting horse simultaneously lifts all four feet off the ground, and Thomas Edison's kinetoscope, which displayed film shot with Edison's kinetograph, the first motion picture camera.
Visitors are also apt to be accosted by a cockney promoter, who wants to entice them to watch ``the latest development in entertainment'' - an 1890 triunial lantern. Played in rotation by three actors, the showman is one of several guides stationed around the museum who live and breathe their respective eras.
MOMI's story really gets moving with the advent of the motion picture. One room is laid out like a film studio, with the makeup, casting, sound, and special-effects departments all represented. At the script office, for example, visitors can use a keyboard to play back immortal movie lines.
Around the corner is the museum's most opulent exhibit, a 1930s art deco theater lobby - a valentine to the era when audience attendance was at its highest.
But if the lobby is vintage, the theater behind it is state-of-the-art. It has four projectors accommodating different film formats, and four different screens mounted on a traveling gantry, to accommodate different film image ratios and light intensities.
The museum's purview is not just Hollywood films, but cinema's broader role. One exhibit includes a 1930 REO Speedwagon, used by Movietone News for its American newsreels. Another salutes film's role in war. There's even an elaborate replica of a 1919 Russian cinema carriage, which showcases the Soviet silent cinema.
A small exhibit on avant-garde films contains one of the more unusual pieces in the collection: a large gray hand covered with locust-size ants. This charming vignette was taken from ``Un Chien Andalou,'' a 1928 experimental film by the Spanish surrealist director Luis Bunuel.
FROM cinema, visitors plunge into the world of TV. The museum has enough television sets to satisfy the most ardent couch potato. One room has a flank of them, one each from 1946 to 1958, all displaying a potpourri of shows from TV's golden years.
The intertwining of television and politics is suggested by a re-creation of the door at 10 Downing Street, home of the prime minister, which is surrounded by video portraits of five former residents.
The museum has also assembled an electronic ode to the television commercial. Nine monitors are stacked three-high, an arrangement that suggests inundation, and visitors can view a sampling from any year of their choosing.
Many of the video exhibitions are participatory. Visitors can be ``interviewed'' in a mock studio by Barry Norman, one of England's most prominent film critics. They can lie on a blue-colored ramp, part of the museum's Chroma-Key system, while a video monitor above shows them flying over London. They can read the nightly news from a TelePrompTer-like device called an Autocue, then watch the results on a monitor.
All of this serves to demystify the technology behind television, helping people see it as a medium, not magic. Indeed, the museum has taken care to reveal the underpinnings of its own operation.
The museum's central control room, packed with video disc players, computers, and other equipment, is itself an exhibit. Visitors can also get a rare look at a working projection room.
Temporary exhibition space currently features ``The Nine Lives of Charlie Chaplin.''