Slide collection opens a door on America’s past

The American Museum of Natural History has made its collection of lantern slides – an early educational tool – available online. Bill Condie looks through this treasure trove.

American Museum of Natural History

More and more of the world’s great museums and institutions are digitising their collections and publishing them online. It is a wonderful trend, putting otherwise inaccessible artifacts at our fingertips wherever we have a device and a Wi Fi connection.

The American Natural History Museum has a treasure trove of material – images of early 20th century expeditions, plates from its rare books, art and memorabilia.

One of the most fascinating is the museum’s Lantern Slide Collection, which gives an insight into how we lived more than a century ago, and a glimpse of what was then a cutting-edge educational tool.

Lantern slide technology was invented in 1849 – 10 years after photography itself – as an early form of slide projector.

It allowed photographs to be viewed not only by individuals and small groups, but by a substantial audience – perfect for the classroom or lecture theatre.

The museum was quick to catch on to the idea and created its lantern slide lending library as the basis of the Natural Science Study Collections which it delivered to New York schools. The slides were reproduced from the growing collection of photographs created and collected by the museum staff, and the slides were originally used to illustrate public lectures.

The lectures were so successful that a new and larger theatre was constructed in 1900 to accommodate the crowds. The hand-coloured slides range from scenes in the museum, the history of New York, the history of science, natural history and a record of newly arrived families at Ellis Island.

It is a wonderful record – and one that remains as vibrant today as it must have been to those early crowds, brought to us by the marriage of the old technology with the new digital one.

You can see more images from the Lantern Slide Collection at the American Museum of Natural History

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