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.
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.