Magic lantern slides come to life  

A selection of slides on display at The Secret Museum exhibition showing.

A selection of slides on display at The Secret Museum exhibition showing. - Credit: Torquay Museum

For most of a century, Torquay Museum’s collection of magic lantern slides had been patiently waiting to be looked at and brought back to use.

Finally, in 2019, their documentation and subsequent free access for the public was selected as one of the ways to celebrate the museum’s anniversary and its historic links to research and education.

The collection of more than 6,500 lantern slides was created by Torquay Natural History Society and built-up through the early 20th century.

Commercial slide of St Mark's Cathedral and Doge's Palace in Venice (PR37002)

Commercial slide of St Mark's Cathedral and Doge's Palace in Venice (PR37002) - Credit: Torquay Museum

Many of the slides were donated by lecturers such as Hugh Watkin and A.W. Searley, who had used them for their talks in Pengelly Hall.

As such the collection reflects research of the past and the interests of the Museum Society who hosted the lectures.

The society still exists and runs a lecture series in the same lecture theatre.

This makes the collection very unusual as many similar institutions were subsumed by other institutes or universities.

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To help the museum’s staff with the documentation, four wonderful volunteers were found and trained and even though lockdowns and Covid restrictions have prevented them from volunteering for months, the museum would not have been able to do the work so quickly without their help.

Before the documentation started we didn’t know much about the slides or the subjects they covered but that’s changed after months of cleaning, labelling and digitising.

The most interesting thing we’ve learned is that most of them were privately made and are therefore unique.

We had known that many relate to Torbay, the UNESCO Geopark and Dartmoor but there’s so much more.

Because the collection reflects academic interests of a learned society lecturing on a variety of subjects, the slides illustrate not only towns and villages in the South West but also many places around the world.

They relate to natural history, geology and botany as well as astronomy, archaeology and heraldry.

Hundreds of the natural history images have a strong correlation with the museum’s regionally and nationally important natural sciences collection.

To make the collection accessible to the public, the museum has partnered with Lucerna – the Magic Lantern Web Resource that will host the 6,500 slides on their website along with thousands of slides from other museums.

Privately made slide of Bess's Cottage and the Walnut Tree in Cheshire (PR35709)

Privately made slide of Bess's Cottage and the Walnut Tree in Cheshire (PR35709) - Credit: Torquay Museum

To search Lucerna, simply type lucerna.exeter.ac.uk into your browser.

The museum has also transferred 800 lantern slides donated by Richard H. Worth to the Dartmoor Archive and they will be soon available to view on their website at dartmoortrust.org

The slides provide not only an amazing resource for exhibitions and social media but we can also use them as they would have been used in the past – for lectures.

The museum is hosting a day of talks on September 25 and local history author Phil Badcott is going to project the newly digitised magic lantern slides to  illustrate his talk 'A History Tour of Torquay'.

There will also be presentations of slides on various topics running in-between the talks.

To see a selection of slides in person and acknowledge the hard work of the museum's collections volunteers, visit The Secret Museum exhibition which is on until September 5.