Museum for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine
School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science
University of Leeds
I would like to suggest for discussion the glass plate slide, commonly used in magic lanterns throughout the nineteenth century. This object provides us with the opportunity to discuss what I think are significant themes for material culture, for curators and scholars generally. I recommend that the glass plate slide’s predisposition to reveal multiple meanings enables us to develop useful approaches for other objects.
Recent scholarship emerging from anthropology but finding itself useful among historians of photography foregrounds the sensory dimensions to an object. The magic lantern itself burnt limelight to project the glass plate slide in dimly lit halls. Here the sense of smell and touch undoubtedly contributed to the agency of the glass plate slide. Indeed for researchers now, our inability to record touch and smell reflects only the prejudices of our textual tradition, not the qualities of the object.
This broadening of approaches has enabled scholars to explore realms beyond the image represented. In this way the glass plate slide helps problematize how we look at an object and helps us challenge what constitutes an object. The subject represented photographically in the glass plate slide might be of great importance. The museum exhibition hall represented in Image 1 was destroyed in 1941 and along with the objects it contained, no longer exists. Therefore we could argue that here the reality effect of the glass plate slide is our point of convergence.
However if you look at Image 2 in which the actual wings of butterflies have been prepared and mounted between the glass plates, we might feel satisfied to conclude that it is the physical structure suspended between the glass that is the object.
Even so, we would not deny the physical structures that make these things up, the paper tape, the delicate glass that’s easily broken. Thus we might argue that the material constitutes the object, which by extension might also include the series or collection the glass plate slide was part of.
The glass plate slides often include inscriptions and other such marginalia. Here too is an important other layer of meaning.
Looking at Image 3 you’ll see not only a description of the representation, an inscription indicating slide won a silver medal, as well as lines of poetry. The human dimension highlighted by such evidence reminds us how such objects had agency, emotive with the poetry. How as human constructions, they existed within complex social networks that included photographers, the developers, projectionists, the viewing public, archivists, researchers and more besides. With these different social settings come different configurations of relations all around the glass plate slide. I would suggest then that the glass plate slide represents a disembodied object, an object which is also a fragment of a larger something, perhaps a larger object. But one fractured through the reorganisation of the archive so that the slide is broken away thus from its original relations. A transparent square suspended within a now hidden constellation, seemingly autonomous but in fact still the result of original orbits and forces.