In 2017 the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum awarded me a generous research stipend to investigate geographical aspects of their collections. Across two trips in late July I spent four days at this treasure trove of a Museum that historical geographers and historians of science with an interest in the nineteenth century and fin-de-siècle era vitally need to know about. The museum holds a rich seam of 75,000 artefacts related to early cinema, comprising circa 650 individual lantern slides which, to date, have barely been mined by scholars.


Travel and exploration subjects fascinated nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century audiences. During my doctorate I sought to situate the Royal Geographical Society’s (abbreviated henceforth to the RGS) magic lantern practices in relation to those of other London, British and international geographical societies and educational and entertainment organisations of the final decades of the nineteenth century, a period in which the RGS, by employing the lantern, helped to establish geography as an academic discipline in British universities.


Having drawn on the BDC Museum’s materials in preparing workshops and a lecture for the University of Exeter’s Art History and Visual Studies first year undergraduates, following my AHRC-sponsored PhD, with the University of Exeter and the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) ( and post-doc on the Lucerna project (, I had an idea of the riches to be found. This time round, and to my delight, I found that references to the Royal Geographical Society and geographical subjects, crop up throughout the museum's collections. Fascinatingly, the strength of the collections is their demonstration of an existing, if not flourishing, geographical knowledge economy, and range of ways to communicate and capitalize on geography, prior to the professionalization of academic geography in Britain. The following discussion of my exploratory forays seeks to convey the excitement generated by my reflections upon the myriad geographical aspects of the collections’ lantern slides, lantern lecture programmes, and guidebooks.



Faithful guides to nineteenth-century London?



My point of departure was the collection’s nineteenth-century London guidebooks. Both visitors to the world’s largest city, and Londoners themselves could tour the salmagundi of entertainments and, equally, the attractions that though commercial, were also instructive and scientific. Texts such as London, What to See and How to See It, {No date], [EXE BD 39154]; London Lions, 1826, [EXEBD 39205]; Kidd’s New Guide To The ‘Lions’ of London; or, the Stranger’s Directory […], 1832, [EXEBD 39204]; Routledge’s Popular Guide to London and its suburbs including the international Exhibition, [No Date], [EXEBD39198]; The Great Exhibition […], [No date], [EXE BD42700]; Hardwicke’s Shilling Handy Book of London, [EXE BD46238]; Goodluck’s guide to the Sights and amusements of London, 1850, [EXEBD 14874] are amongst those that gripped my attention. Written for a range of budgets, interests and social backgrounds, these works are often structured around multiple or single journeys across the city.


A map accompanied by a lyrical passage, ‘On the physical geography of the basin of the Thames’, opens The Pictorial Handbook of London […] (1854) [EXEBD39200]. This brings to mind a similar structuring device adopted by the natural scientist, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), in his influential teaching manual of physical sciences, Physiography: An Introduction To The Study of Nature (1877). The inclusion of maps, often positioned in the first chapter, in a number of the guidebooks evidences the advancing authority of this visual form, and perspectives drawn from geographical and related earth sciences, across the nineteenth century. Shifting patterns in printing, publishing and readership  also significantly shaped guidebook formats. Critically, the coming to prominence of lantern-slide lectures in which visual and cartographic depictions were central, also impacted textual traditions.


London comprised a new space of exploration. Indeed the guidebooks make apparent a widening gap between the capital and the provinces: London’s urban culture could seem as alien, and as much like another country, to tourists. The heart of empire gained a reputation for its degenerate popular culture, and the licentiousness, sensualism and scientific materialism, ie. questioning of religious faith, that lingered therein. A chief delight of the guidebooks is therefore the distinct, idiosyncratic voice in which proposed journeys around the metropolis are narrated. Old Humphrey’s Walks in London And Its Neighbourhood London, for example, intimates in its preface that


‘It is possible that in the present work I may, with some readers, run the risk of forfeiting a portion of that good opinion which has been so kindly and so liberally extended to me. There may be those who will think that London sight-seeing is an occupation too light-hearted to be indulged in by an old-man, and that I might have employed myself better in attending to things more profitable, and better adapted to my years.

Different people, however, take different view on most subjects; and believing, as I do, that habitual cheerfulness is no unfit attendant on healthy piety; and having, also, a strong impression that a grateful participation of lawful’

‘enjoyment is a better expression of thankfulness to the father of mercies, than a voluntary endurance of unmeaning penances, and useless and unprofitable self-denials; I have thought it not inconsistent with my years and my hopes, to give some account of such places of public interest in London as may be visited by Christian people in their hours of relaxation, without hampering them in their earthly duties, or hindering them on their way to heaven.’ Though the gray hair is on my head, and the furrows of time are on my brow, yet have I to be thankful for a light foot, a ready hand, a quick eye, and a cheerful heart; and the possession of these blessings, naturally enough, leads me to partake of sunshine, rather than to go in quest of shadows.’

(Old Humphrey’s Walks in London And Its Neighbourhood London: The Religious Tract Society; Instituted 1799, [1843], EXE BD 39197, p iii-iv.)


Whilst Kidd’s New Picture of London […] ([No date [EXE BD 39196], 7.) highlights the risks run by country visitors to the city:


‘London In All Its Glory, &c. &c. A word of Advice to Strangers and Visitors. […] A perfect stranger to London, on visiting the metropolis, stands in much need of a faithful Guide. Unacquainted with the ways and manners of its inhabitants, the feelings of surprise which he naturally exhibits on beholding any new object of curiosity, cause him to be narrowly watched by those whose business it is to ‘live by their wits’, and the number of those respectable individuals is estimated at 22, 000, in London alone. The weekly newspapers, in the course of six months, furnish instances innumerable, of persons from the country having been victimized or robbed by these London conveyancers;’ I, therefore, feel it right to caution my readers against taking the slightest notice of strangers, or any individuals that may be anxious to enter into conversation.

This advice should especially be borne in mind when taking up your residence at an hotel. These places are always frequented by people on the look-out, who will readily pay the cost of a dinner for the chance of a good desert. When wine, or spirits and water, are in request (and after dinner, at tables d’hotes, this is daily) then is the time they force their conversation, and volunteer to act as cicerones to their new and good-tempered acquaintances. Of all the people who frequent these places, I say – beware!’

(Kidd’s New Picture of London; Containing an account of all the Exhibitions, Amusement sand Entertainments, In the Metropolis, To which are now first added, A Description Of The Environs of London; And An Index, Pointing Out The Most Delightful Walks, Rides, And Drives, London, Published For W. Kidd by W. Ingham, 14 Chandos Street, Strand, [EXE BD 39196], 7.)


Exhibiting the world



Geographical subjects comprised an important source of inspiration for artistic and commercial endeavours. Nineteenth-century London effectively constituted an exhibition space in which the world was showcased on an epic scale. The Great Exhibition of 1851 staged in the Crystal Palace [EXEBD 42700] saw the first projection of photographic lantern slides by the American Langenheim Brothers; between 1851 and 1861 Wylde’s Great Globe stood in Leicester Square [EXEBD 77256]; and the experimental demonstrations and dissolving lantern slide views at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in Regent Street, figure amongst these.




As well as these better known attractions, the guidebooks have initiated me into the pleasures of new and lesser-known nineteenth-century amusements, such as Week’s mechanical tarantula, the human orrery demonstrating the motions of the sun and planets, and the life-size African Glen. A profusion of interactive, 3-D, multimedia, entertainments was on offer to the ever-greater numbers of residents, and tourists flocking to London, throughout the century. The Diorama in Regent’s Park is by the far the most intriguing of exhibitions. Goodluck’s guide to the Sights and amusements of London, 1850 [EXEBD 14874] tells that ‘The spectator stands on a platform which turns on a pivot, bringing him opposite various paintings, light being so managed as to give the scene the appearance of sunshine, rain, morning, and evening in succession.’ Burford’s Panorama in Leicester Square displayed changing topographical views. Visitors to the Albany Street Royal Cyclorama witnessed ‘A colossal painting representing the destruction of Lisbon by earthquake.’  Whilst the Cosmorama in Regent Street, established in 1820, exhibited ’Eight scenic views in Italy, Switzerland, and Greece, shown through glasses, which give them the appearance of reality.’ The massif of Mont Blanc had been scaled down so as to fit into the Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly, where panoramas of the Nile, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, or the fabled cities of Jerusalem and Thebes offered further opportunities for virtual travel.

These creations fascinate in their anticipation of recent contemporary art works such as the Tate Modern’s Weather Project ( by Danish-Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, the German scientist-turned-artist Carsten Hollar’s Decision exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (, or the images projected on to Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in 2012 by 3D and The Third Company ( However, the advent of photography, once it was coupled with the projective medium of the magic lantern from circa 1850, and later the moving film of cinema, dramatically impacted these attractions, divesting them of their depth and dynamism, and eventually superseding them.



In journeying through nineteenth-century London with the guidebooks I was surprised to discover references to both the Royal Geographical Society and the Traveller’s Club. The Pictorial Guidebook (1854, page 583 [EXE BD 39200]) and Hardwicke’s Shilling Handy Book of London, page 69 [EXE BD46238] and Leigh’s NEW PICTURE OF LONDON, page 291 [EXEBD 42695] all list the RGS under the imperial metropolis’s scientific and savant societies such as the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the Geological Society. The consecutive moves around the city of the nomadic Society can thereby be followed.

The Pictorial Guidebook (1854, page 583 [EXE BD 39200]) summarizes the Society thus:

 ‘The Royal Geographical Society of London was established in 1830, for the improvement and diffusion of geographical knowledge. Its premises are at 3, Waterloo Place, where there is a small but good geographical library, and a collection of maps, charts, and instruments connected with geographical science, to which all the members have access.

The mode of admission to the society is by recommendation by two or more members, after which the decision is made by ballot. Every ordinary member is required to pay 3l. as his admission fee, and 2l. annual subscription, or he may compound for both by one payment of 28l.

The meetings are of three kinds, anniversary, special and ordinary. The anniversary meeting is held on the fourth Monday in May, when two gold medals, the gift of the Queen, are presented to the two most distinguished promoters of geographical discovery. The ordinary meetings are held on the second and fourth Monday of every month, or thereafter if judged expedient by the Council. Visitors, if introduced by members, are allowed to be present. The members or fellows are known respectively by their initial letters, M.R.G.S, or F.R.G.S.’


Until recently the RGS was considered a comparatively exclusive organisation; admission was by election, and women were not fully admitted as fellows until 1913. However, as this above quote shows, the attendance of guests may have, to some degree, diversified audiences. Contingently, my doctoral work challenged such perspectives by demonstrating the RGS’s educational work with audiences of diverse socio-economic backgrounds across Britain, and its engagement with audiences of teachers and professionals from a range of sciences.



Adverts included in the guidebooks further evidence the rising authority of the RGS, and publicized the changing status of geography in Britain. Routledge’s Popular Guide to London and its suburbs including the international Exhibition, [No Date]. [EXEBD39198] contains an advert for Dr. Cornwell, FRGS’s educational books in arithmetic and geography. Such allusions to the Society, however brief, attest to the prominence and celebrity of the Society, and the new ways in which the RGS entered the national and imperial consciousness.


Travellers tales and geography lessons





Beyond the guidebooks, the museum collections contain numerous examples of published lantern-slide lecture programmes authored by Fellows of the RGS. John Forsythe Ingram, author of the Optical Lantern Reading programme, ‘A Cruise on the East Coast of Africa’, displayed his credentials as ‘FRGS, Special Correspondent Natal Mercury. Twenty-three years resident in Africa.’ The collections offer the rare chance to compare multiple lecture programmes on diverse subjects, and by several authors. The eighty or so examples in the collections reveal the ubiquity of the medium of the lantern in shows designed by diverse producers, and for a range of audiences beyond the London metropolis. A thriving lecture, and knowledge-making, scene, as scholars, Joe Kember, Richard Crangle and Simon Naylor demonstrate, operated across Britain, including in Devon.


Many lecture programmes address travel and exploration themes, or deal with the exploits of individual explorers. The BDCM does not hold the slides that originally illustrated this lecture. However, the text, intended to be read alongside the projected images, remains vivid even today. For instance,



‘Optical Lantern Readings. Central Africa. BY THE REV. JAMES COMPER GRAY, AUTHOR OF THE “BIBLICAL MUSEUM,” “TOPICS FOR TEACHERS,” “THE FALLS OF NIAGARA.” “THE HOLY LAND,” “EGYPT,” ETC, ETC.’ [EXEBD 36751] comprises a set text narrating the life of the explorer David Livingstone (1813-1873). The programme first lists the fifty lantern slides to illustrate it. The text opens thus: ‘No one looking on the maps before us, whose memory is able to travel back from 30 to 50 years, will fail to observe the immense difference between it and the map of Africa with which we were then familiar. With the exception of Egypt, together with the names of places and the mouths of rivers marked around the coast, the whole of Africa was one great terra incognita. The great difference in our knowledge of this vast continent is mainly due to the wonderful energy and enterprise of a few noble and courageous men; and it will be our business this evening to bring some of their toils and travels before you.’ (Optical Lantern Readings. Central Africa. BY THE REV. JAMES COMPER GRAY, page 1 [EXEBD 36751])


Portraits of those considered to be eminent explorers affiliated to the RGS, including Mungo Park, Henry Morton Stanley, Lieutenant Cameron figured amongst the dissolving views of this lantern slide set. Today, the RGS still holds its own examples of such lantern slides as well as the original photographs, paintings and sketches from which they were taken []. It was via these diverse visual and textual media that the heroic cult of the explorer was perpetuated as it reached, and inspired, audiences of adults and children, male and female, far and wide.



Geographical subjects frequently elide with imperial ones. Shifts in visual and communication technologies afforded opportunities for many. And though stimulated by the perceived veracity of the camera, arguably, audiences may have lost out as lantern-slide sets and lectures were increasingly standardized via mass production, and made more pedagogical. Such visual and verbal narratives promoted British imperialism and, effectively, recruited the minds and bodies of new, younger generations, to its cause. David Livingstone, foremost a missionary, himself projected biblical scenes with a magic lantern during his exploratory travels in Africa. That imperialism leached into all aspects of British life in this period can be seen throughout the BDM collections. The privately produced, typed, lecture programme of ‘The All Red Route Around The World’ [EXEBD36745] illustrated how each continent could be visited, and the world circumnavigated, without leaving the British Empire. These materials fascinate and, at times, horrify and shock with their nineteenth-century visions of notionally inferior races and indigenous peoples and the triumphant tone in which Britain’s imperial exploitative and, too often, violently oppressive, endeavours were celebrated. Such passages reveal the chasm between one’s own values today and the routines outlooks of British people just over a hundred years ago. This exposes the foreign land of the past where radically alien practices and beliefs prevailed.


Visions of geographies, popular and scientific




As with the BDCM guidebooks and lecture programmes, so with its lantern slides; travel subjects dominate. The popularity, and lucrativeness, of travel and exploration stories and subjects continued towards the end of the nineteenth-century, and well into the twentieth century, as they came to be depicted and narrated via new technologies. Viewers of these slides are transported to some of the most popular destinations of the later nineteenth century. The Reverend Somerset Lowry’s slides include images of family gatherings, and scenes of Devon, Switzerland and iconic sites of the Pyramid of Khafre and the Sphinx in Egypt.




Other slide sets take in London [EXEBD 64154]. Whilst the one slide relating to Japan [EXEBD 6417/1] represents the craze for japonism in this era [EXEBD 64147].



Such destinations had been long visited by British travellers, but were made more accessible by expanding rail and steamboat transport networks, and mass tourism.




An evocative set of coloured slides narrates, in triumphant fashion, scenes from the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902) [EXEBD]. These commercially produced sets likely served propagandizing, or educational, purposes. An account by Charles Du Val, With A Show Through Southern Africa And Personal Reminiscences of the Transvaal War, further attests to the lantern’s prominent role in this conflict [EXEBD 42599].



Finally, a rare, early set of slides ventures into space in depicting the motion of the earth around the sun, processes of eclipses, and starry skies. These slides exemplify the range of slide formats that once circulated, from sets that were commercially available to those intended for public or private use.

Including slides that were lithographically printed, and others were photographic or hand-drawn and painted, the diversity of production methods reveals how, despite their common homogeneity of form, lantern slides conceal a remarkable diversity. A historical geographical approach further highlights originality of each surviving lantern slide and set, as well as the uniqueness of their display and reception histories.



In Britain the authority of scientific knowledge and practices ascended over the course of the century. Geographical science professionalised from 1887 onwards subsequent to the establishment of a Readership in the nascent discipline at the University of Oxford. The photographic recording of the world during, and following, its exploration and exploitation via colonization brought forth greater awareness of the diversity of terrestrial landscapes, and the range of human beliefs and social practices within them. An ever more geographically and socially diverse array of audiences was able to access this knowledge via the highly mobile, affordable, and collective, technologies such as the magic lantern and lantern lectures. The guidebooks to London listed as many sites of science and entertainment as they did of those associated with religious belief and missionary groups, for whom the lantern was essential in propagandizing. Though the producer, title and intended audience remains unknown, one commercially produced and printed set of slides held by the BDM, depicts cathedrals in Britain and France [EXEBD 64154]. The BDMC collections highlight the advance of science, often associated with secularism, yet in parallel religious belief, and authority, persisted.


Journeys end



Glimpses of the ways of seeing, knowing and travelling the world in the flesh and virtually, by nineteenth-century audiences can be seen through the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum collections. The materials discussed here, in affording new perspectives, have highlighted the conspicuous vein of geographical themes in late nineteenth-century educational and commercial travel texts, London entertainments and lantern-lectures and slides. They bring to light the variety of ways in which geographical knowledge relating to London and locations further afield in Britain and beyond, was communicated and consumed throughout the nineteenth century and into the fin-de-siècle era.

My two trips to Exeter have reminded me that PhDs are never conclusive. Certain texts or materials, seen on different days, or in particular locations, bring new insights, and just as often teach you things you thought you already knew, all over again, often more vividly. This is exciting. However, the investigation of the allure, and role, of publications, attractions, and lantern lectures and slides in sustaining science, fostering a culture of virtual travel, or equally, creating the concept of the foreign, and the exotic figurative and topographical ‘other’ or the notion of a common humanity, remains an on going interdisciplinary project.

Dr Emily Hayes (HRA Oxford Brookes University)

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