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From Kittens to Curling, Thousands of European Lantern Slides Are Going Online

Photographs of cats and kittens from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Collection (© 2016 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter)
Slides from a set of cats and kittens, from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Collection (© 2016 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter, all images courtesy Lucerna database) (click to enlarge)

Tens of thousands of magic lantern slides, for decades hidden in the collections of museums and archives across Europe, are currently being digitized and released into the public domain. Since last June, researchers at a number of universities have been collaborating to put together A Million Pictures, a project intended to celebrate lantern slides, which, while often made for teaching purposes, are now recognized as “the most important visual entertainment and means of instruction across nineteenth-century Europe,” as the researchers write.

1888 woodcut illustration of a "Docwra" triple lantern (© 2011 Richard Crangle) (click to enlarge)
1888 woodcut illustration of a “Docwra” triple lantern (© 2011 Richard Crangle) (click to enlarge)

The slides “were primarily used by lecturers working in 1880–1920, who would frequently use illustrations to supplement their material,” Joe Kember, who leads the UK wing of the project through the University of Exeter, told Hyperallergic. “Some of the slides came from commercial manufacturers; others were handmade by local photographers and photographic societies. They vary from the bizarre to the mundane.”

Almost none of the slides being digitized were publicly accessible until now, although a few have been published in books. The material, which will gradually become available as additions to the existing Lucerna lantern slide database, is incredibly varied, featuring travel photos, reproductions of artworks (which some art history professors might still use today), photographs of museum collections, microscopic views of the natural world, painted comic slides, illustrations for songbooks, snapshots of daily life, and much, much more. Most were not taken by well-known photographers, as Kember said, but the researchers are gradually learning more about the people who shot the images, as well as those who presented them.

A Million Pictures is fully searchable, and although the online resource is still in its early stages, so not every slide set is available yet, you can filter your query to include only digitized ones. It’s projected to wrap up in May 2018, but in its current stage, the database is easiest to navigate if you have a certain subject in mind, rather than simply clicking around in hopes of finding a unique picture. You can browse the slides by the set in which they were sold, by people associated with or depicted in them, by event, by place, or simply by keyword. Some of the collections — mostly public — that contributed material also list their holdings, including the Ilfracombe Museum, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, and EYE Film Institute Netherlands. Unfortunately, the images online are available only in low resolution, but Kember said higher resolutions may be attained by arrangement with the owner of the original slides. Below are some favorite selections from Lucerna (including slides uploaded prior to A Million Picture’s launch), among them portraits of canines and hand-colored landscapes.

Flower studies from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Collection (© 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter)
Flower studies from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Collection (© 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter) (click to enlarge)
Photographs of dogs from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Collection (© 2015 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter)
Photographs of dogs from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Collection (© 2015 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter) (click to enlarge)
Queen Alexandra and Baroness Burdett Coutts from a series of celebrities from the Philip and Rosemary Banham ( © 2015 Philip and Rosemary Banham)
Queen Alexandra and Baroness Burdett Coutts from a series of celebrities from the Philip and Rosemary Banham (© 2015 Philip and Rosemary Banham) (click to enlarge)
Views of Central Park and Greenwood Cemetery from 1888 (© 2013 Richard Crangle)
Views of Central Park and Greenwood Cemetery from 1888 (© 2013 Richard Crangle) (click to enlarge)
Slides of sites in southern Asia from the Manchester Geographical Society Collection (© 2016 Manchester Museum)
Slides of sites in southern Asia from the Manchester Geographical Society Collection (© 2016 Manchester Museum) (click to enlarge)
Views of Italy from EYE FIlm Institute Netherlands' collection (© 2016 Sarah Dellmann)
Views of Italy from EYE FIlm Institute Netherlands’ collection (© 2016 Sarah Dellmann) (click to enlarge)
Series of insects from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Collection (© 2016 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter)
Series of insects from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Collection (© 2016 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter) (click to enlarge)
Slides showing views of Burma, manufactured by Underwood and Underwood (c. 1900) (© 2014 Richard Crangle)
Slides showing views of Burma, manufactured by Underwood and Underwood (c. 1900) (© 2014 Richard Crangle) (click to enlarge)
zoo
From a collection showing a visit to the zoo, manufactured by G.W. Wilson (c. 1896) (© 2013 Richard Crangle) (click to enlarge)
Slides of the Royal Alert Memorial Museum Collection (© 2015 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter)
Slides of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Collection (© 2015 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter) (click to enlarge)
G.W. Wilson, "Skating – 'Outside Edge Backwards' (1891) (Digital image © 2016 Philip and Rosemary Banham)
From a collection of sports and athletics, manufactured by G.W. Wilson (c. 1891) (© 2016 Philip and Rosemary Banham) (click to enlarge)
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