Although I have only been working in the Penn Museum Archives for a couple months, I have become completely enveloped with the aura of historical narrative in the photos and documents we work so hard to preserve. Over time, however, there are many objects that become obsolete in the presentation of this narrative. The glass plate lantern slide is one such outmoded item that has largely come into disuse due to advances in photo technology, and the archives possess approximately 25,000 of them. These plates were once projected by professors in lectures for classes or for public entertainment from the late 1880s to the early 1930s (even after they were no longer made, they were still used at the museum through the 1950s, and one professor was still using them in the 1990s). As a precursor to the 35mm film slide and our modern day PowerPoint presentations, the images on these slides were developed on a small glass surface, usually 3×4 inches, and covered by another glass pane and taped shut. Predating color photography, many of the slides are hand-painted, with some being duplicates of other images (original museum photographs, copies of drawings, or pages from books) as well as rare or unique images, for which neither negatives nor prints survive.
Over the years, the archives have received a number of slides from outside the museum and from other departments at Penn. While some of these additions have been integrated into the archives’ collection, many fall outside of the scope of our photo collection. The question then developed of what to do with these slides that do not belong in the collections but still hold aesthetic value and speak to a sector of art that has altogether disappeared. My solution to this dilemma is what I like to call the “Lantern Slide Re-purposing Project” as reconciliation between the uselessness of outdated technology and a narrative we can still derive from it.
I began this project with the simple intent of making lantern slides relevant. Putting on my crafting cap, I got to work trying to create a function for these items that highlighted the value of their structure. What I came up with was two fairly basic projects that turned these obsolete lantern slides into a unique home decoration. With a little craft glue and some basic geometry, I was able to construct mini lantern slide lamp shades and window pane displays, both encompassing the essentiality of light in capturing the true beauty of the photos.
I put my inventions to the test during the museum open house on October 23, and I offered starter kits for these two projects to anyone who wanted to take some lantern slides and create their own crafts. Many people sifted through the boxes of slides we had to offer, looking for photos with certain themes for their projects. Some visitors even intended to give their creations to family members who might be interested in a particular subject, such as Roman statues. There is no doubt that friends and family who see the slides will be curious about them and their history. Throughout this process more ideas were formulated for re-purposing the slides including: coasters, pencil boxes, and mobiles. Most of these products are things we have in our homes anyways, so instead of buying them mass produced from a department store, why not give them their own unique character? The dust-collecting lantern slides finally have an opportunity for new life, and there are still loads of them available in the archives for anyone who wants to embark on their own re-purposing journey.