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Glass Plates: unique eyewitnesses of history

Photographs come in all shapes and colours, and are an important part of many people’s daily lives. Because how quick are you to capture beautiful moments for the future, today? But it was quite a different story about a hundred years ago. Back then, fragile glass plates were the ideal medium for capturing historical events and milestones in life – making them valuable heritage treasures that make the past more tangible. In order to let everyone learn from this piece of history, meemoo has launched the largest European glass plate project to date.

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Partners View all 33 partners
Duration July 2021 - December 2023

Source reference: Fabre-zaal: Bees, De Wereld van Kina, Copyright protection not determined

What is a glass plate?

A maternity ward for refugees during World War I, children ice skating, the first Indian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, drawings of fairytale scenes, or advertisements for ‘velvet stockings’. These are all unique images found on glass plates. Feast your eyes on them:

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The glass plate is one of the oldest materials for displaying photographs, in use from the 19th century onwards, but it made way for photographs on plastic from the second half of the 20th century. Slides, which many people will still remember from family gatherings or presentations, became more and more common. This means that most glass plates are nearly a hundred years old! In the GIVE project, ‘glass plate’ is used as the umbrella term for glass negatives, glass positives, stereographs and lantern slides.

From magic shows with magic lanterns, to PowerPoint presentations in auditoriums before PowerPoint even existed, and press photography during the war – the use of glass slides was widespread.

Why are we safeguarding glass plates?

Glass plates hold an immense wealth of information. The images have great historical value and provide a glimpse into daily life in the 19th and 20th centuries. But it wasn’t just everyday life that was captured on glass plates. So-called lantern slides – colourful illustrations on glass – were used to educate or entertain children, but also to make the general public dream of distant places or catch up on scientific discoveries.

So there are some real gems, which unfortunately often remain hidden from public view. This is because glass plates are very fragile, and administrators often choose – rightly so – to store them away safely. Digital files, on the other hand, can be accessed anywhere without causing any harm to the original carrier. Until now, high-quality digital copies of glass plates in Flemish archives have unfortunately simply not often been available. The GIVE glass plates project is changing this for organisations with a glass plate collection. In collaboration with meemoo, they are now making the content on their carriers accessible – today and in a hundred years from now.

A mass digitisation project

In a major inventory of Flemish archives, museums and heritage libraries, meemoo identified a total of 180,000 glass plates to be digitised. To ensure that the glass plates can continue to be easily accessed, meemoo – with support from the Flemish Government’s Resilience Recovery Plan and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) – launched a mass digitisation project for glass plates. It’s the first time this has been done on such a large scale in Europe.

Why is it interesting to bring together such a large quantity across organisations? Put quite simply: digitising on a small scale is not only very expensive, but also requires technical expertise that not all organisations possess. Each carrier also requires a completely different approach. Consolidating materials is therefore both more efficient and more cost-effective.

© GMS Digitalising studio

This digitisation process results in a copy of each glass plate that closely resembles the original, with the highest possible quality and in the most sustainable format.

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Do you recognise the carrier?

Have you already used the identification tool, knowyourcarrier.com? Since 2018, you have been able to use it to identify your old video and audio materials, and in 2023 it also added the same service for photographic materials – which you might have hiding away in your attic, for example. You can also go there for tips on preservation and digitisation, and find out whether your carrier might have any heritage value. This expansion to include photographs has been made possible with help from photographic experts and is part of the GIVE project.

Which archives do the glass plates come from?

Upon completion of this project, you will be able to admire glass plates from 33 heritage institutions. City and cultural archives, museums and two government institutions: the participating partners are as diverse as the glass plates and their content!

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This project was made possible with support from the European Regional Development Fund and is part of the Flemish Government’s Resilience Recovery Plan.

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