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Collector Spotlight: Robert Murch


Robert Murch collects talking boards. Here, the Ouija’storian shares his history with this often misunderstood spiritual tool and explains his theory about what happens when people use talking boards.

Describe your collection.

I have over a thousand talking boards plus board-related objects, such as sheet music, artwork, magazines, and other collectibles.

My hobby turned into an obsession that turned into a job. I founded the Talking Board Historical Society in 2008. The Society is dedicated to preserving and honouring the history of talking boards around the world. The group just unveiled OuijaZilla, the largest ever talking board; a massive project led by society member Rick Schreck. I have made lifelong friends within the society and have so much fun travelling and celebrating the people involved with the history of talking boards. I’ve worked on movies, such as What Lies Beneath with Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford in 2000, and the two Ouija movies. The thing that I’ve spent years researching is something I’m now affecting. 

When and why did you start collecting talking boards?

I became fascinated by talking boards at age 13, when my grandmother snuck me into the Witchboard movie in 1986. I was raised in Orthodox Judaism, although I don’t practice now. Almost anyone brought up with religion believes in ghosts and spirits. I wasn’t afraid of the idea; I thought it was cool. When I went to university, I had a small collection of about ten boards. I spent time in the library researching the origin of talking boards through encyclopedias. Each publisher cited a different story about the origin and history of boards. Almost everyone has played with a board or knows about them, yet no one really knew where the idea came from at that time. That set me off on a search. The real history of boards is with people. I started connecting with other collectors and descendants of people associated with the early production of boards. Some of those individuals didn’t even realize their family was connected with talking-board history.

The use of boards has changed significantly over time, as have our attitudes towards death. The Fox sisters from Hydesville, New York were the first known spiritualists of their time in 1848. They heard noises in their house and tried to communicate with the spirits making the noises. They laid the foundation for mediums and spiritualists to thrive. People started to create tools to communicate with the dead. The United States Civil War had a great deal to do with the increased use of talking boards. Most people had a father or brother who died in that war. Those left behind wanted to communicate with their loved ones and used spiritualist devices like Ouija to answer questions related to their life and/or death.

There was a time that we weren’t as far removed from death as we are now. At one point in history, people displayed their dead loved ones on ice in their parlours and took photographs of the dead to be displayed at home. Interestingly, parlours are now called living rooms. When the first Ouija board was marketed, the box depicted a happy family using the board like it was family game night. Ouija takes on a darker tone these days but it is still part of the fabric of our lives. There are television and movies centred around the board, boards are used at sleepovers and parties, teenagers use talking boards to scare themselves. Companies regularly use talking-board imagery in their marketing, particularly around Hallowe’en.

Personally, I view talking boards as a mirror, a reflection of our deepest thoughts and biggest fears. Whether it’s you talking to spirits or your subconscious coming through as you use the board, you get out of it what you put into it. That’s the beauty of Ouija.  

How do you display and store your collection?

I bought my home with my collection in mind. I do have things all around the house, but much of my collection is in my downstairs museum. My set-up does change depending on what I’ve lent out for other exhibits. I don’t like seeing blank space, so I bring boards out from storage when needed. I have had my collection displayed to tell the story of talking boards in a chronological timeline. I have a section devoted to movie and television boards. I include a clause in my movie and television contracts that states I get to keep any boards that make an appearance. I have LED lighting built into the displays that shines upwards, giving a nice glow to the objects on display. The rarest items in my collection are kept in my home office. Those include stencils of the original Ouija, the only surviving stock certificate from the original producer of Ouija, and the very first printing plate from a 1966 William Fuld board produced by Parker Brothers.

What do you consider to be the Holy Grail of talking boards?

There are many Holy Grails out there. The early boards, for sure. Boards from Charles Kennard, Volo, and Igili are Holy Grails.

Charles Kennard played a huge role in developing talking boards. He, along with Helen Peters and Elija Bond, created what they called a Witch Board in 1890. The group asked the board what it wanted to be called and the board responded with “Ouija”, which means “good luck”. Helen Peters really is the mother of Ouija. She was a medium and played an important role in the history and production of talking boards. She was largely written out of the history of the board; the Talking Board Historical Society has corrected that. I have one of her early boards in my collection along with her christening dress and a giant portrait of her at 13-years-old.

What resources do you use to acquire knowledge about your collectibles and to connect with other collectors?

Most of my information comes from first-hand accounts. Google didn’t exist when I started researching talking boards so I had to make phone calls and travel to talk with people directly. If you get obsessed with something, you always want to take it further. You uncover story after story. Every person involved with talking boards is fascinating and their descendants are now keepers of those stories. You should check out the article from Smithsonian on the history of talking boards. It was fun for me to contribute to that piece.

What advice would you give to someone interested in starting a similar collection?

Start anywhere except eBay; it’s so expensive now. When I began collecting, talking boards were $10 to $15. Now they go for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Try flea markets, Craig’s List, antique stores, and other places like that.

If you own a talking board but aren’t sure of its history, contact the Talking Board Historical Society. You may have a piece of history we haven’t uncovered yet!

 

Learn more about Robert Murch and talking boards on his website.

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