Looking after our collection

Museums’ collections are constantly growing, and new acquisitions can take many shapes and sizes. Our collection at the National Science and Media Museum focuses on the science and technological achievements behind photography, film, television, videogames and sound.

The collections services team is responsible for the care of all new and existing museum objects, on arrival, while on display or in storage. We undertake their documentation, conservation and digitisation. This work often goes on behind the scenes, but it is crucial for the use, research and enjoyment of the collections by all of us!

What is a magic lantern?

A magic lantern is an early type of projector developed in the 17th century. It uses an artificial light source like a bulb or candle flame to project hand-painted images, transfers, prints or photographs on a glass slide. The magic lanterns and magic lantern slides were commonly used until the mid-20th century as a popular means of entertainment, with images exploring many themes from life, society, vices, popular songs, comic subjects, tales, religion and more.

This particular collection of slides was previously part of the lending library of Riley Brothers of Bradford, and featured Bradford city in some of the images. It is fascinating going through a collection and finding known landscapes, realising how much and how little they have changed.

Bradford street in the early 20th century and in the early 2020s.
Example of the Bradford cityscape (Hustlergate), then and now.

The images in this collection were produced by posing models – local volunteers or the photographer’s family and friends – alongside furniture and other props in front of hand-painted backcloths or in real-life city and landscapes. The resulting photographs were then mass produced in both black and white and hand-coloured versions. This type of slide became known as life models, as they were used to illustrate narratives, songs and other texts. In the words of Toni Booth, our curator of film, ‘they carry powerful visual storytelling narratives that engaged audiences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and can still do so today’.

Documenting and conserving the collection

Our newly acquired magic lantern life model slides collection comprises 182 magic lantern sets, varying from 2 to 60 but averaging 12 slides per set. The total number of individual slides is 2647—quite a large number for the team to process. The slides are 80mm by 80mm in size—a very common size found in the UK—and composed of two sheets of glass, one bearing the image and the other a cover which protects the image. The two layers are kept together by a strip of black paper tape around the edges, called binding paper. The images are mostly photographic with some printed examples. They are mostly black and white images which have had colour added by hand, though there are some exclusively black and white sets.

Due to the size of this collection, the conservation team called in support from colleagues in the wider collections services and curatorial teams.

museum staff wearing face coverings work on magic lantern slides in a room lit with task lamps
The team at work with different workstations: documentation, photography, condition reporting, cleaning and rehousing.

The tasks include documentation, photography, condition reporting, cleaning, rehousing and storage. Find out what each of these stages involves below.


Documentation starts by giving each set its unique and identifiable number. All the relevant object information is recorded in the museum’s collection management system. This ensures all colleagues with access to the database can find each set’s overall description, condition, location and associated hazards.


In the first instance, basic photographic documentation of each set was captured using transmitted and reflective light. Transmitted light was taken using a lightbox, to ensure there is a record of the content/image of each slide. Reflective light gives information about the materiality of the object, for example where areas of loss or breakage become more apparent.

The same Bradford street scene twice. The left image is crisp and bright whereas the right is darker and blurrier.
Examples of transmitted light through a lightbox (left) and reflective light from ambient room (right).

Condition reporting

A museum conservator describes the condition of slides upon arrival. This step, alongside photographic documentation, is crucial in monitoring for any deterioration of objects during storage and after display.

This collection is in good condition, particularly given its age and previous use. Common damage found includes surface dirt, minor cracks, lifting and losses to binding papers, fading of hand-coloured dyes and minor image silver corrosion. The images below are good examples on how the colours are still so nuanced, vibrant and clear.

Two magic lantern slides with bright hand-painted colours
Crack to cover glass in the lower right corner of the image on the left. Lifting and losses to binding paper in the top side of the image on the right.

Conservation treatment

Conservation treatments are performed by trained conservators. Interns, volunteers and colleagues from other departments can help with some treatments, as long as they are guided and supervised by conservators.
In the context of this project, minor surface cleaning was performed on each slide with microfibre cloths.

Rehousing and storage

Museum collections are often stored following the 3-step storage approach. This means that each object is individually rehoused inside an enclosure, placed in a box, and the box is stored on a shelf or in a cabinet. Importantly, all materials that come into direct contact with objects are inert and will not contribute towards their degradation.

For this collection, each lantern slide was rehoused in four-flap paper envelopes and placed upright in the metal drawers of a plan chest. The drawers have been lined with foam to provide appropriate padding and metal dividers were used to ensure objects are kept in the desired upright position.

A plan chest drawer filled neatly with white envelopes containing magic lantern slides
Storage improvements being achieved (work in progress).

The storage facility itself is environmentally controlled and monitored to ensure the collection’ long term care.

Working alongside with colleagues from other teams to process this large acquisition has been fantastic, particularly when what is achieved is so neat and satisfying. It is rewarding to connect with colleagues over a collection that is relevant to the museum’s place within the Bradford community.