Category Archives: Digitization

Digitization and Cyanotypes

Our Artist in Residence, Lawrence Malloy, is currently working on a project to digitize some (maybe all, but there are thousands) of our magic lantern slide collection. Using some of these images Lawrence is creating beautiful artwork inspired by the collection such as this stunning cyanotype print.


More or Lawrence’s work can be found here or follow him on twitter @lawrencemalloy

Leeds a Leading Light in Lanterns?

The lanterns in the Museum’s collection date from the early 20th century, and were once used for teaching. It was thought that using visual aids would improve memory retention in students, and lanterns and slides provided a convenient way of producing images and displaying them to a large audience. In educational and scientific settings magic lanterns were more commonly referred to as ‘optical lanterns’.

More interesting still, a short article in the Review of Reviews (1890) reveals that Leeds may have been quite pioneering in its uptake of the magic lantern for use in lectures. The article, entitled ‘How to Utilise the Magic Lantern; Some Valuable Hints for to Teachers’, cites ‘The Optical Lantern as an Aid to Teaching’ by C.H. Bothamley, which gives details about the use of the lantern in classrooms at the Yorkshire College, now the University of Leeds. Bothamley refers to Professor Miall (then Professor of Biology), who promoted the use of the magic lantern for teaching students, and was able to demonstrate its successful use even in day-lit rooms. According to this article, “In the Yorkshire College almost every department has its lantern”, used to illustrate lectures on a range of “widely different subjects”. The educational slides in the Museum’s collection are representative of this variety, covering a wide range of topics, including the sciences, engineering, history, art, architecture, industries, geography and travel.

The optical lantern was of particular value to subjects such as biology and engineering because lectures on these subjects were highly dependent on illustrations. Furthermore, in science lectures, small specimens could be easily viewed by a large audience if they were projected using a lantern. Microscope attachments meant that even micro-organisms and microscopic structures could be seen. For example, in the Department of Textile Industries at the Yorkshire College, lanterns were used to display micro-photographs of fibres. Some specially designed scientific lanterns featured an open space in front of the condenser, so that live scientific experiments could be conducted and projected. There was also a second optical system that projected light upwards before projecting it forwards. This allowed specimens in flat dishes to be projected. Special ‘tank slides’ were used for displays requiring liquids, such as crystallised solutions, or to show creatures like tadpoles swimming in water.

The aforementioned Review of Reviews article states that “The example of Leeds has been followed on a smaller scale, but with very gratifying results, in several High Schools in the district” (Review of Reviews, 1890, p404). However, it is unclear if these examples are indicative of the wider use of lanterns in teaching primary and secondary level education. While the use of the magic lantern in school was much written about in education journals of the late nineteenth century, Elizabeth Foster has cited an article in The Teachers’ Aid that highlights “the lack of progress which was made in realising in schools the full potential of photography and projection”. Reasons given for this lack of progress include the conservatism of the teaching profession, the unwillingness of publishers and photographic firms to engage with the school market and the reluctance of teachers to embark on the necessary learning associated with the technology.

Nevertheless, the museum’s collection does contain some slides and equipment that once belonged to local secondary schools. The Carpenter & Westley astronomical slides, which were the subject of the ‘Shedding Light’ post, were used at Bradford Grammar School to teach pupils about planets and the solar system, and the Newton & Co. rack and pinion slides may have been used for similar purposes. These have now been digitised (see below) and we hope to eventually make them available throught the University’s Digital Library repository.

This post is adapted from an excerpt of the now completed magic lantern and slides object history files by Kiara White and Liz Stainforth.

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Beneath the scratched surface of a glass-plate we see…


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.


Bladderwort. Taken as a photographic hortus siccus

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.

Claire and Liz busy during Light Night

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 fleeting moment captured thus, speaks of a summer afternoon and the amateurish interests that motivate some scientists

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.


Removed from it’s ‘function’ and it’s ‘place’ the glass-plate slide speaks of aesthetics and the senses.

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.