Shedding Light on the Slightly Strange: Lantern Slides from the Booth Museum Collections

It was a chill November evening. A handful of eager observers were gathered together in a darkened corner of the Booth Museum. They gazed at the illuminated picture thrown onto the wall by the magic lantern in the corner. The picture showed a seated figure, with some kind of implement in one hand, pausing for a moment perhaps to regard his work. But the observers would never know because they could not see his face. Indeed he had no face! Above his shoulders was simply a dark whooshing, melting chaos of inky clouds…

“And this,” I announced, “is one of my favourites.”

Last November I was lucky enough to participate in A Curious Night of the Slightly Strange at the Booth Museum. As a long time lantern enthusiast I was aware that the Booth’s collections included magic lantern slides but had never seen them. On this occasion I was given permission to project some of the slides for the entertainment of the visitors. John Cooper, Keeper of Natural Sciences, kindly fetched out a few boxes for me and his random choices brought to light a couple of interesting trails…

Little information is known about the origins of the Booth slides. As in so many cases, they have been amassed over the years from various sources primarily to be used for giving lectures. Lantern slides are the PowerPoint of the past and were not necessarily regarded important enough to be part of a museum’s ‘official’ collections. However today they are recognised as an obsolete format rich with history, and thus their cultural significance has been elevated.

The subject mater of the slides I had been given to look at were a mixture of natural history and archaeology with a few other oddities thrown in. Below you can see a selection of my favourites, including the amorphous artist already introduced (whose missing face was possibly caused by overheating of the glass).

One of the boxes had a paper label attached which read ‘W.S. Rowntree, 15 Chatsworth Road, Brighton’. Chatsworth Road is just round the corner from the Booth Museum, so it may be that Mr. Rowntree was a regular visitor who donated his slides. Some of the slides in the collection had been given by members of the Brighton & Hove Natural History and Philosophical Society (active from 1854 – c.1960). Searching on the internet I found a reference to a W.S. Rowntree in a 1912 issue of The Leightonian, the magazine for Leighton Park School.

2 Rowntree paper label

Here I read that after thirteen years of teaching, Mr. Rowntree is leaving and ‘opens his season as a public lecturer, whose programme has in it many well-known schools, including Harrow, Brighton College, Ardingly, and Hurstpierpoint.’

Could it be that this is our Mr. Rowntree and that these are his lecture slides? Certainly a line for further investigation…

The other point of interest came from a ‘maker’ of slides rather than an owner. A few of the slides were labelled ‘Coloured by C.H. Cobbold, 54 Stirling Place, Hove.’ One features raccoons and another, a bunch of snowy bunnies.

4 Cobbold label

3 Cobbold bunnies

This time an internet search for the name brought me to the Cobbold Family History Trust website. Here, a present Mr. Cobbold (Anthony) who runs the site announced that he had acquired two sets of C.H.’s lantern slides but that he had no further information as yet. We struck up a correspondence and made a mutual agreement to exchange any future discoveries regarding Cobbold, Colourist of Hove.

And so will these mysteries, revealed by the Curious Night of the Slightly Strange, be resolved? Only time will tell…

If you would like to see magic lantern in action join me for:

Whales

Beneath the Whispering Sea at Brighton Museum on 12 March

A Bite-Size drop in demonstration at Brighton Museum on 21 March from 12–1pm

The Film Galleries at Hove Museum have a permanent display of magic lanterns, slides and a slide show you can watch in the mini cinema.

Admission to Hove Museum is free, see the current opening hours for Hove Museum

Alexia Lazou, Collections Assistant