Patricia Francis, Curator at Gallery Oldham, on a colourful collection of lantern slides of Victorian caterpillars that fortuitously made its way back into the collection
As a whole the Natural History lantern slide collection mounts to almost 1,000 slides and, covers everything from photographs of tiny organisms through to insects and fleas and spiders and then everything from reptiles and amphibians to birds and mammals.
You can still see these wonderful caterpillars in the wild if you’re lucky enough – they’re still there, but perhaps in reduced numbers now.
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They are all moth caterpillars. There is a Kentish Glory, which as the names suggests, used to be quite widespread in the south but is now “nationally scarce” and is only to be found in Scotland at Rannoch, Aberdeenshire and Morayshire.
The big pink one is a Hummingbird hawk-moth, and there is a silkworm, an American variety with the silk cocoon where natural silk comes from, and one of them looks like the Very Hungry Caterpillar!
The caterpillars have been photographed on their food plant – the specific food plant to that species and occasionally there’s a pupae, or chrysalis, on the image that would then develop in to the adult.
All of the slides are remarkably clear, but I don’t know how they were taken, or whether they were hand tinted, I mean, did they produce colour lantern slides? Has someone painted all of these? I don’t know enough about the photographic process, but they fascinate me on all levels.
There was a trade in these lantern slides, and a company in Manchester called Flatters and Garnett, traded in every manner of scientific tools and aides, microscopes and collecting equipment. They produced catalogues and people bought all kinds things from them. I think a lot of these older collections that facilitated learning are just equally as fascinating as the actual pinned insects and the pressed flowers; these are equally interesting to me as the objects themselves.
For example we have what are called breeding cages in the collection; when you were out in the field you came back with your caterpillars and you popped them in there, on the correct food plant, because they are all species-specific, then you let that caterpillar develop to the pupa stage and then you let it develop into the butterfly or the moth.
This way you have a perfect specimen, which you may want for your collection or you may wish to photograph it because as soon as they start flapping about they start to lose the scales from their wings, and they’re less than perfect.
They were literally caged, like little mini zoos – but for insects – and that is still done amongst breeders. Butterfly houses across the country – the ones who have them in captivity and where you can walk through the greenhouses – all work like this, their specimens are all bred in captivity.
It’s possible that some of these caterpillars were part of a process like this, but we don’t know for sure. I am certain there are photographs of the adults of these moths, on another slide, and perhaps a perfect moth, somewhere. We may well have them, and I’m expecting to find them, but there’s little obscure pencil notes in amongst them that say things like, “number 3 missing”, so in the past they may have been borrowed by people and not returned.
The museum, which we now know as Gallery Oldham has a bit of a complicated history. Founded in 1883, it started off in the town centre. Then in the 1930s the service moved out of town to become a classic natural history museum in a park after a mansion house and garden was donated to the Council.
After it closed in the 1970s the museum came back to the town centre, but some things were disposed of and some of the members of the Oldham Natural History Society, who met in the building, didn’t want to see things being damaged or got rid of, so they took them home.
“Somebody obviously thought – there’s no use for these now they are old-fashioned, let’s get rid of them.”
When one of them, a Reverend Charles Edward Shaw, died, one of his parishioners brought his collection of lantern slides to the museum and when I looked at them I realised some of them were in the museum in the past, and they had been merged with his own material. There was also a lantern slide projector as part of that donation.
And then another gentleman, who had left Oldham to take a job somewhere else, also gave his collection back. So these things that were once unwanted or ‘disposed’ of and cared for by private collectors, began to come back to us.
They weren’t accessioned objects; these were things that were used in teaching and in lecturing as we would use PowerPoints and wildlife films today. So they were not museum objects as such – they were redundant pieces of equipment in effect. So somebody obviously thought – “there’s no use for these now they are old-fashioned, let’s get rid of them”.
We don’t know the exact date of most of them, but one of the boxes that came from Reverend Shaw is marked Oldham Microscopical Society, later to become Oldham Microscopical and Natural History Society, which goes back to the 1864 and pre-dates the museum. It was the members of the society who agitated for a museum and eventually they got one.
But they are certainly from the Victorian period – when looking at lantern slides would have been a popular winter pastime.
The Oldham Microscopical Society is still going strong. They meet every week to peer down their microscopes and share the things they have found with each other.
They come here to our current building when we have an annual open day where we just chat to visitors about natural history. The members bring lots of things for children to engage with, I think children are naturally interested in natural history.
Another interesting thing about the slide collection is how there’s quite a lot of people in them, and that’s another big task – to find out who these people are. What’s interesting about them is that they’re ordinary people, they may have been members of the society, or of other societies. There are gentlemen in flat caps and raincoats and tweed, they’re just ordinary people but sometimes they’ve got a butterfly net and they’re about their business.
I find the whole thing interesting, the history of natural history is what truly fascinates me. We all sit down now and watch David Attenborough presenting some fantastic film of creatures from across the world, and these lantern slides show us that this is exactly what people did in the past.
Patricia Francis was speaking to Richard Moss.
Find out more about the Natural History collection at Galley Oldham including behind-the-scenes tours and events at www.galleryoldham.org.uk/collections/natural-history-collection/
Oldham, Greater Manchester
Oldham's art gallery and museum - a place for people and ideas. Changing exhibitions of art, natural history and social history.