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A MILLION PICTURES: Magic Lantern Slide Heritage as Artefacts in the Common European History of Learning

Research project

A MILLION PICTURES is a collaboration between the universities of Antwerp, Utrecht (coördination), Exeter, Girona and Salamanca. The Antwerp research team is supervised by Kurt Vanhoutte. This international team of researchers will study the use of magic lantern slides by educational, popular and academic associations. 

Fellow: Sabine Lenk

Supervisor: Vanhoutte Kurt

Duration: 01/06/2015 - 30/05/2018

Official project website:

Funded by the Joint Programming Initiative in Cultural Heritage



A magic lantern is a device with which transparent images can be projected. The device is often seen as the predecessor of the projector. It was the most important visual entertainment and means of instruction across nineteenth-century Europe. However, despite its pervasiveness across multiple scientific, educational and popular contexts, there has hardly been any research conducted on the device. Many libraries and museums across Europe hold thousands of lantern slides in their collections. Yet a lack of standards for documentation and preservation limits the impact of existing initiatives, and hinders the recognition of the object’s heritage value and potential exploitation. This project addresses the sustainable preservation of this massive, untapped heritage resource.




This procedure has to meet the demands of the museums, libraries, archives and universities. Therefore, the researchers will collaborate with several cultural heritage institutions, like the the Museum for Contemporary Art in Antwerp (Vrielynck collection), British Film Institute in London and EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam. The magic lantern slides from the partners' collections will be digitalised and the metadata will be made accessible for further research. 


The Antwerp research team will study how the magic lantern has been used to popularize knowledge in popular venues. Throughout the nineteenth century, attending science shows was a very common pursuit. Magic lantern attractions successfully institutionalized a model of recreational and educational public spectacle that occupied popular cultural venues such as theatres, opera houses, museums and observatories. The performance of astronomical slides, the first precision science and, in the nineteenth century, the model of what science should be, provides a case in point. The shows were exemplary in their immersiveness and intermediality, combining the magic lantern as mediating technology with modalities from the theatre.


The Antwerp research team will focus on the performative context of these scientific lantern shows in popular venues. The goal is to deepen the understanding of the cultural value of lantern shows in relation to changing ideas of theatricality, the adaptation of the lantern and its users to suit a certain venue, occasion and audience, and the complex struggle between didactic and aesthetic particularities.


Together with a team of artists theatre and film makers, the researchers will also produce examples of how to creatively re-use the thousands of nineteenth century images once more. 

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