Pre-cinema optical entertainments, including magic lantern projectors and the millions of glass slides that were manufactured during the Victorian period, are now the subject of research around the world. Universities, museums and scientific institutions are cataloguing and digitising their collections and / or creating databases of slide images for public use.
When I started collecting magic lantern slides forty years ago, most people in Britain were unaware of them and only a handful appreciated their historical value, so I’m amazed by the current level of academic interest. What is driving this flurry of activity?
Lantern slides throw light upon the lives of those who made them; used them to educate, entertain and preach a moral or religious gospel and those who saw them in shows and lectures from the 1640s to the 1940s. Modern study of the subject is about social attitudes, technological change and the power of visual imagery to tell a story and deliver a message.
One international research projects aims to digitise and record, in detail, one million magic lantern slide images and the related information for each slide. By accessing and cross-referencing this data via the internet, future generations will be able to undertake historical research in their particular field, which might have no connection to slide projection but will complement more conventional sources of information.
I recently attended the 10th International Magic Lantern Convention, with one hundred and fifty delegates from Asia, Australia, Europe and America. Those present were academics, collectors, showmen and women, artists and historians. This three day event was remarkable in its breadth, scholarship and shared fascination and joy of the subject. If you’d like to learn more about this subject, please visit the website of the Magic Lantern Society.