Join us
Orange welcome sign that reads Royal Geographical Society with IBG.

Become a member and discover where geography can take you.

Join us
Display of historic materials, including photographs, lantern slides, and books

Geographical projections

Lantern-slides and the making of geographical knowledge at the Royal Geographical Society c.1885-1924

Research by Emily Hayes

Emily Hayes

September 2011 start, 2016 completion. University of Exeter: PI Dr James Ryan.



The Royal Geographical Society adopted the popular entertainment medium of the magic lantern during a period of reform in the 1880s, when the Society was keen to promote geographical education alongside exploration. This decade saw a shift in the Society's relationship with visual media. The Photograph Collection was founded in 1884; from the mid-1880s maps, diagrams, figurative and landscape illustrations started to appear in the Proceedings of the RGS; and from 1886 until at least 1960 the RGS lectures were illustrated by lantern slides. Once containing as many 40, 000 lantern slides, today the Collections hold c.20, 000. They reflect a spectrum of lectures; evening meetings for general audiences; Children's Christmas lectures initiated in 1892; and, from 1894, Technical scientific lectures for specialists. The slides predominantly comprise photo-mechanically reproduced images of maps, landscape and figurative photographs as well as some hand-coloured images.

As many of the lantern slides were donated to the Society by Fellows or their families, these images constitute unique visual material objects rather than mere reproductions of images which exist elsewhere in the Society’s Collections.


Find out more

A printed copy of this thesis is available for consultation in the Foyle Reading Room (reference only). An electronic copy may be ordered through the British Library's e-theses online service.

Emily is now a Research Associate/Associate Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University - see her research profile.


Selected publications from Emily's project

  • Hayes, E. ‘Cross-Channel currents: the Société de Géographie de Paris, the Royal Geographical Society and the popularisation of knowledge, circa 1868-1888’, chapter in C. Turbil, I. Ampollini, K.H. Nielsen and J.-B. Gouyon (eds), History of communication of science in public in a European context. [London, UCL Press] (Forthcoming 2020).

  • Hayes, E. ‘“Nothing but storytellers”: from one thousand Royal Geographical Society lantern slides to A Million Pictures’, chapter in S. Dellmann & F. Kessler (eds) A Million Pictures: Magic Lantern Slides in the History of Learning. East Barnet, J. Libbey Publishing (Forthcoming August 2020).

  • Hayes, E. (2019) ‘Fashioned in the light of physics: the scope and methods of Halford Mackinder’s geography’, The British Journal for the History of Science. DOI:  

  • Hayes, E. (2019) ‘Slidescapes: three Royal Geographical Society lectures by Vaughan Cornish’, Early Popular Visual Culture.

  • Hayes, E. (2018) ‘From black boxes to Brexit: the magic lantern’s lessons in perspective’, response to Alexandra Harris’ conversation piece ‘Landscape Now’, British Art Studies, 10. DOI: 10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-10/conversation/007.

  • Hayes, E. (2018) ‘Geographical light: The magic lantern, the reform of the Royal Geographical Society and the professionalization of British geography in the late nineteenth century’, Journal of Historical Geography, 62, 24–36. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhg.2018.04.003.

  • Hayes, E. (2014) ‘“No branch of science enters more closely than Geography into the art of war”: The First World War, lantern-slides and the Royal Geographical Society, London’, Early Popular Visual Culture, 12(4), 434–445. DOI: 10.1080/17460654.2014.984950.

  • Van Doosselaere, B., Delhon, C. and Hayes, E. (2014) ‘Looking through voids: a microanalysis of organic-derived porosity and bioclasts in archaeological ceramics from Koumbi Saleh (Mauritania, fifth/sixth-seventeenth century AD)’, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, 6(4), 373–396. DOI: 10.1007/s12520-014-0176-5.

Starting references

  • Crangle, R., Heard, M. and van Dooren, I. (2005) Realms of Light: Uses and Perceptions of the Magic Lantern from the 17th to the 21st Century, London: The Magic Lantern Society

  • Fiell, Charlotte and Ryan, James (2012) Memories of a Lost World: Travels through the Magic Lantern, Goodman / Fiell Publishing

  • Hanks, T. L & Silverman R. J. (1999) Instruments and the Imagination, Princeton University Press, New Edition

  • Humphries, Steve and Lear, Doug (1989) Victorian Britain Through the Magic Lantern, London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd

  • Lightman, B. V. (2007) Victorian popularizers of science: designing nature for new audiences, Chicago: University of Chicago Press


10 key sources

  1. There are four, partially overlapping (and each in their own way incomplete), lantern slide card indexing systems. These are organised numerically, alphabetically, geographically and by subject matter. The cards detail the numbers of lantern slides originally accessioned, the accession date, the lecture they illustrated and the lecturer whose paper they illustrated or the producer of the original images. Many cards also record the date when certain faded slides were destroyed or state whether any original negatives remain. Others state who donated the lantern slides and when. Substantial numbers of lantern slides in the Collections were, apparently, donated to the Society and never catalogued. In the past some of the lantern slide sets were separated, but can be reconstituted by cross-referencing the index systems.

  2. The Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and the Geographical Journal. Copies of the original publications are held at the Society or can be accessed online via Jstor ( These two publications contain graphic advertisements depicting magic lanterns, transcripts of lectures and the discussions that followed them, maps and illustrations associated with lectures, notices about the use of the lantern in the Reports of Meetings and publicity for the Society’s Children’s Christmas lectures.

  3. The extant Journal manuscript (JMS) copies of the lectures read at the Society. Some of these are annotated and still housed in their original files with further notes by those who peer reviewed the papers.

  4. Hugh Robert Mill’s (1930) The Record of One Hundred Years of the Royal Geographical Society provides an overview of the Society’s history from 1830 to 1930.

  5. See the Annual Council Reports for details of lantern slide costs and income and lantern slide exhibitions once the Society had moved to Lowther Lodge.

  6. The Royal Geographical Society Year Books (1898 – 1916) provide useful summaries of the year’s activities. Lantern slide numbers, details of indexing systems, the rules of the Map Room where the lantern slide collections were held are summarised in them.

  7. The meetings of the many Society committees in the Society Committee Minute Books contain a wealth of information. The Finance Committee minutes record the lantern slide, lantern and lanternist hire costs. The Map Room and Library Committee Minutes record decisions to invest in new slide storage facilities, new indexing systems and, from 1951 to 53 the decision to destroy the faded lantern slides in order to make space for new collections.

  8. The Society Map Room Ledgers contains details of lantern slides and photographs purchased by, and donated to, the Society. The names of the producer, number and geographical region of the lantern slides are stated.

  9. The Society correspondence blocks include manuscript and typed letters by the key figures responsible for the Society’s adoption of the magic lantern and frequent references to lantern slide arrangements by lecturers at the Society.

  10. Society Special Papers include diverse papers, letters and reports from individuals, the Map Room, Library and other Society offices.


Lantern slide research tips

The online catalogue contains references to lantern slides which were once housed in the Collections, but may have subsequently been destroyed. The decision was taken to do this in order that researchers better understand both the Collections in their entirety and the nature of the illustrated lectures or donations of slides to the Society. You may therefore find that the slides no longer exist. You can, however, check the Society’s photographs and negatives to see if any relevant images remain in these forms. Certain images may have been published in the Proceedings or Geographical Journal in conjunction with the transcriptions of lectures.

It can be helpful to cross reference the Society’s online catalogue entries with the physical lantern slide card index. This contains over-lapping numerical, alphabetical (general arranged by author or photographer name), geographical and subject indexes.

When researching the Society’s publications on JSTOR be aware of the fact that the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society run up to 1893. From 1893 the publication appeared as the Geographical Journal (GJ). Sometimes it is useful to go back to the hard copies of the Proceedings and Geographical Journal held in the Society’s Foyle Reading Room.

The Society’s Map Room ledgers contain information about the date and number of lantern slides either donated to, or purchased by, the Society.

Many individual lantern slides have manuscript or typed title labels with details of the individuals, locations and objects depicted. The sequence number of individual slides is often given. Details of the slide maker sometimes feature too. 

The Society’s light boxes can be used to view lantern slides and the Picture Library has equipment to provide high resolution scans.


Links to websites/blogs

The Magic Lantern Society has general information about the history of the magic lantern, worldwide collections and lantern shows: 

Trier University’s Lucerna database details key European lantern slide collections, magic lantern events and publications.

In 2014 Emily participated in the UCL History of Science workshop Emotions, Transformations, Restorations at The Institute of Making Things. Her blog of the experience can be found here.

Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

National Media Museum