Object of the Week: Glass Plate Slide

Mark Steadman's picture

Mark Steadman

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.  

Great post Mark! A really nice piece for our first Object of the Week. Fascinating and useful to consider a tool used in viewing objects as an object itself. This opens up questions of material agency, perception, representation, preservation, museumization...

Subscribers can post responses, comments, and questions on the site by clicking “Add a reply” at the bottom of this post or “Reply to this post” on the top of the right side of this page. If you are reading these in your email, click the “Read more or reply” link at the end of the email to offer your response.


Thank you, Mark, for a thought-provoking meditation on the glass plate slides.  The layers of possible meaning in such objects, I think, open up -- or extend --  the consideration of established ways of examining photography (e.g., technical choices, audience, intention, the tangible entity).  While I am not a material culture specialist, your post suggests to me a paradigm that not only invites additional ways of "walking around" these slides in multiple sensory ways, but an approach to analyzing  historical articles more broadly.  As a friend of mine always said, objecting to the notion of learning styles, "We have five senses for a reason."

Susan M. Willis, Ph.D.

Thank you Susan for you post, especially for pointing to a more expansive application for such an approach. Having worked with various groups helping them explore objects in these multi-sensory, multi-disciplinary ways, has proved to me how useful this approach is; not only for providing new insights and interpretations around the object but for building confidence in individuals, especially regarding their own interpretation of unfamiliar or 'specialized' objects, as well as for encouraging individuals to extend their research tools and methods. In agreement with your friend, I have found that individuals correctly supported find this process intuitive...'we have five senses for a reason' and a little like an awakening. We certainly collate experiences in this way anyway...if something smells, we smell it...but we are conditioned to disregard these experiences within academic paradigms. Of course there is more to it than this...but hopefully you get the gist.

I wonder whether or not we(I) need a more concise vocabulary though? I myself have been influenced by scholars from philosophy, anthropology, material culture, museology and psychology and the term 'object' alone can signify many different things across these fields. Certainly, the process itself tends also to lead us 'somewhere else' etymologically speaking. There is an example I have used with students where we discuss a museum display of a (Tiger) taxidermy specimen. The idea is that we contemplate the terms we can accurately use as we go beyond the existing museum interpretation and begin to scrutinize and problematize the object. Beforehand students are usually happy calling the object a Tiger and by the end of the discussion are forced to make their own name up for it...usually something awkward and dissatisfying.

I'm still thinking about your last post, Mark, but in the meantime, this from the BBC this morning brought to mind some facet(s) of material culture involving preservation --  the continuing evolution of technology for preservation (e.g., we can now install less destructive lighting at the Oxford University Museum),  the rediscovery of objects long held in a collection but enhanced with new knowledge about them, etc.  I wondered if the leaks and light damage had been going on so long because funds were short.