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Libraries and Archives: Lantern Slide Collection

In 1849, the Philadelphia daguerreotypists William and Frederick Langenheim introduced the lantern slide: a transparent image on glass that could be projected, in magnified form, onto a surface using a "magic lantern," or sciopticon. This new technology expanded the uses of photography, allowing photographic images to be viewed by a large audience. With lantern slides, Museum curators and educators could illustrate their lectures, letting audience members see detailed studies of objects and sites from around the world.

Our lantern slide collection was started by the Brooklyn Museum's curator of fine arts, William Henry Goodyear, in the late nineteenth century. With the assistance of the photographers Joseph Hawkes and John McKecknie, Goodyear reproduced images of archaeological and architectural sites in Europe as well as images of the Paris Exposition, which Hawkes often hand-colored for more realistic effect. The lantern slide collection also developed through the efforts of the curator of ethnology, Stewart Culin, and his successor Herbert Spinden, who created and purchased images of objects and sites. Historical images of Museum galleries, New York City scenes, and buildings also became part of the collection. In 1921, a significant addition of 118 boxes of slides, originally the property of Franklin Hooper, Director of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, was consigned to the Museum, the Children's Museum, and the Botanic Garden.

With the introduction of smaller transparencies in the 1950s, the use of lantern slides declined. The glass slides have remained quite valuable, however, because they depict scenes, people, and events from an earlier time, as well as sites and objects that simply no longer exist.

Our Libraries and Archives now hold 11,710 glass lantern slides, which were selected from the extensive lantern slide collection in 1990. At that time, archives staff conducted an initial evaluation and sorting project identifying several categories to be excluded from the collection. Among the excluded categories were reproductions from books, non-Brooklyn Museum objects, and items from natural history and general history. Ten years later, the Goodyear lantern slides were cataloged and scanned as part of the Goodyear Archival Collection. In 2005, archives staff produced a detailed content and condition survey of the balance of the lantern slide collection.

Of the original collection of 11,710 glass lantern slides, 3,093 have already been catalogued and scanned as part of the Goodyear Archival Collection. The non-Goodyear slides have been surveyed and described in the current project. Some of the slides were commercially produced; others appear to have been made by Museum or Brooklyn Institute staff. Some were hand-colored. The images have been organized into several broad sections or series, including "Brooklyn Museum," "Native Americans," and "Views." The two largest series of images are "Views: Objects, Egypt" and "Views: Italy."

Evidence of the work of Stewart Culin and Herbert Spinden can be seen in the large number of images of Native Americans in the collection. The "Research and Writings" series of the Records of the Department of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands, held in the Museum Archives, contains lectures and slide lists for Spinden, making it conceivable that his original presentations could be reconstructed.

Many of the series that show aboriginal peoples, such as the Americas, Asia, and Oceania sections, contain images of individuals posed for the camera. These photographs could be considered marginally objectionable or exploitative in nature, even allowing for the times in which they were taken. Nevertheless, many of these lantern slides have much to offer to a variety of researchers, including historians, art historians, anthropologists, and museologists, due to their excellent quality and detail as well as the collection's wide assortment of subject matter. The hand-colored images, in particular, can be striking. The slides also have value as documenting the types of visual images curators chose to collect during the first half of the twentieth century.