The word bewildering springs to mind when contemplating the variety of objects found among the numerous departmental collections around the University. The scope of subjects represented thus seems limited by imagination alone! However, one constant can be found among them all, for wherever the Museum goes it finds glass-plate magic lantern slides…in their thousands. Lift a stone, and you will find them there. Already the Museum has over three thousand of these glass-plate slides and easily double that amount could be collected again.
Recently the Museum provided a unique show and tell for the Light Night event at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery. Making use of our collection of magic lanterns, their glass-plate slides and many other connected objects from the collection, the event ran through the evening up until ten o’clock. It gave our Director Claire, and Taskforcer Liz Stainforth the chance to demonstrate how magic lanterns worked, their long history and how they were used for science teaching in the University. Liz and fellow Taskforcer Kiara White put all the exhibits and text together for the night, which proved a great success—bravo Liz and Kiara. The display materials and texts will live on as we plan to use them in the renewal of our permanent displays in and around the Philosophy Department. On the night everyone enjoyed the slides…evoking curiosity in all who saw them. Perhaps this is why there are so many to be found around the University, everybody likes then and so nobody likes to throw them away.
So, of late much thought has been put to the subject of how best to use the extraordinary collections of glass-plate slides not just in the Museum but also across the campus. It’s anticipated that digitization will be a part of a final strategy but the vast number involved will undoubtedly prevent a complete digitization of the collections. Nonetheless, Claire tells me that the British Dental Association has had success in getting substantial funding for conservation and digitization of their glass-plate slide collection, so hope springs eternal. Liz, whose PhD tackles issues around the virtual and the real within the cultural sector, is well placed to guide the Museum towards an intelligent solution on this. Until then, the Museum has started digitization on a small voluntary scale, largely aimed at scoping out what might be involved in a more expansive project but also to start highlighting some of the treasures within.
The images featured here are some of that scoping project’s first results. They all come from a box of slides that once belonged to the nineteenth-century Quaker boys’ school at Bootham in York. Even among this general teaching collection, which we might reasonably expect to be of limited relevance to a HPS Museum, we find wonderful material and unexpected insights. Beyond the literal record, somewhere between the degrading wet-collodion, the corroded and scratched surfaces and the passage of time, the glass-plate slide reveals another more evocative characteristic. It seems that with some slides the endeavor to capture a subject literally—photographically—has instead recorded something perhaps closer to the imaginary than the literal. Where the irregularities of the chemicals used to develop a slide invoke emotive responses in the viewer, producing sometimes ghost-like and shadowy images, sometimes sun burnt and glaring. Where the blurred and fogged images suggest movement and passages in time. Where depth of field seems to bring into focus as much a thought or idea than a subject.
I can understand perfectly why on Light Night people were drawn to the curious slides illuminated on the Museum’s light box. Perhaps it was this other characteristic at play, surprising the viewer, catching them off-guard, holding the eye longer than usual. Perhaps it is this that constitutes the magic in the lantern slides. Certainly for me, slides such as ‘Young Blue Tit’ do so much more than depict ornithological subjects! They speak of a time, even an afternoon, like they speak of the preoccupations of those that took them. Similarly, the remarkably beautiful abstractions found among the botanical subjects seem communicate a message so subtly and intimately to the eye that we almost believe these are our own memories and ideas.
Beneath the scratched surface of a glass-plate we see…the magic caught on a lantern slide.