Magic Lantern Slide: Terns with Nest

These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.


INTERVIEWER 1: It’s the 27th of January, 2022, and this is a story interview for Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM, and my name is Natalie McGrath and I am interview Kate Farrell. Hi, Kate. 



INTERVIEWER 1: Welcome. 

PARTICIPANT 1: Thank you. 


INTERVIEWER 1: So we are asking everyone to choose an object that they connect to from RAMM’s collections, so can you tell us which object you have chosen and can you describe it to us as well? 

PARTICIPANT 1: I can. So I’ve chosen terns with nests, which is a magic lantern slide from Alfred Roden, and it’s part of the magic lantern slide collection that RAMM have. As I explored the digital archive online I came across it and it immediately jumped out to me as something huge even though I think in reality it’s probably an inch or two across, but it’s a beautiful image that really called to us. If I describe the blown-up image, it is a captured seascape with a rugged rock, some terns, which are silver and white birds with a black head and a long beak circling around a nest at the base of the rocks where you can see they’ve got eggs. 


INTERVIEWER 1: I mean that’s a beautiful image that you’ve conjured and described it so well. I could really imagine it. So why this object and also what drew you to it? 

PARTICIPANT 1: So the first thing that drew me to the collection was the idea of magic lanterns in the first place. So for their, they date back 3, 400 years in their current format and they were the precursors to old-school slide projectors. You would have had initially drawn slides and then eventually photographic images put onto small slides and then as light sources grew stronger, the photographers were able to take these slides on tour, bring them into schools or village halls or women’s’ institutes or areas where they might not get access to natural history, the geography photographed from other places around the world, and audiences would come to look at these slide shows. It was an incredibly wonderful social thing that helped to spur imagination, love of science, and just wonder. You had a number of different schools where you had photographers and magic lantern enthusiasts who were purely along the scientific side or the education side and then you had others who illustrated and had projections that went along with plays or poetry or music and so you had two very different worlds, but both of these are captured in this gorgeous simplicity of these tiny little images that captured far more than we’d ever been able to get in such a small piece before. So when I came across the magic lantern slide library and I know that RAMM was involved in a project with the University of Exeter and a number of other universities and this is quite an online collection and I’ll admit I lost a day or two in there looking right the way through. They’re phenomenal and I really recommend that people go and have a look. But what drew me back to ones with an Exeter connection when I started to filter down was the works of Alfred Roden who was local, so he’s from Exeter, and he was particularly, although he took a lot of social and people photographs and displayed them, he had a real interest in natural history and local geography and the photograph here of the terns with nests is from the Devon coast and I stopped on it and stayed on it for some time. And then I thought this is the image. After going through so many, after looking at so many things, this was the image. And I almost went at it backwards, I found the original and thought well why, why have I had such a strong connection to this image and it’s, one is the medium, right, which is absolutely magical and I am a lover of any form of historic curiosity that has managed to survive like this, I mean it’s the precursor to our Instagram photos, it’s capturing a moment in time to be shared with as many people as possible and but the other was the content and the sea and I realised looking at it that it reminded me that particular crags and rocks and the birds in particular of the crags and the rocks and the coastline where I grew up, I grew up in Dublin, beside the sea, literally one field away from the cliffs. My childhood was spent in rockpools when I was supposed to be in the back garden and swimming in a little beach called Jameson’s Pool, which was, a beach is generous, it was a lot of not sand but stone and gravel and yeah, sore feet, but it was beautiful, and when I kept looking at the picture it made me think even more and I got really introspective about that connection with where I grew up, the connection that I have with here in Exeter, these birds, you’ll see them at the beginning of the flood relief channel, they’re always perched along the top of the overflow before it goes down into the flood relief channel, and I realised that a huge part of my identity, including my queer identity, is tied up in that sense of location, that connection with the sea and by proxy, birds which I had never really thought about before, had really honed in and crystallised during our lockdowns and the walk I would do every day. I live near the quay and the looped walk down the quay, along the overflow, the flood relief channel, and along past the canal, past the double lochs and around and hearing the birds and seeing the birds during that time, I think we all remember the birdsong as being something almost magical from that time but yeah it was unpicking and realising that these birds, maybe not specifically, but that coastline, those rocks, and that connection with sea and water, it’s a really fundamental part of who I am and so that, after many hours of thinking is where I got to and yeah, it made me a bit homesick, actually. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, thank you for sharing that. I mean that’s extraordinary to hear and as a piece of kind of captured moment in time over the past two years as well and I wonder if there’s anything else you could say about that connection to a queer identity and the natural world, now there are queer ecology studies and things like that, and particularly to the water and to the sea and I think it is there, do you think that they go hand-in-hand, do you think they are interwoven or they’re-? 

PARTICIPANT 1: I do. They’re certainly interlinked for me and through my teenage years in particular, I spent many very dramatic hours sitting by the cliffs across the road from my family home, staring out over the sea and pondering who I was, what I was, what my existence was, and always feeling actually a sense of calmness or a sense of comfort that came from just how huge the sea was so that feeling of not being made small but almost being comforted or being held by the enormity of something else, so no matter how big these things felt, that I was going through, no matter how big these questions I had, there was something much bigger. Much bigger there. I’m not a religious person, I would say that I am a spiritual person but that is intrinsically linked with nature and the natural world around me and I think you probably found the same in a lot of queer people, where we can’t or haven’t growing up made the same connections with establishment and with the standard external sources of family that you might have through community, through village, through parish, through church or religion, so we found other connections, either through found family and friends, through connection with nature, connections with in my teenage years the moon, you know, and just looking for this sense of connection and identity somewhere else and somewhere different, so yeah, I definitely think there’s a resonance there or a connection there. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Yeah, I mean that’s fabulous, thank you. You’ve kind of, you have in part answered, but the next question is do you think another LGBTQ person would connect with your object? and I think you’ve started to unpack that. 

PARTICIPANT 1: I do. and I think even the format and the possibilities of how it’s presented at the moment and I would love and can’t wait to see the slide itself when we see the finished butterfly, but even as a printed piece on a piece of A4, there’s almost a sense of what’s going on around the image itself and the time it would have taken to capture these images, it’s not point and click like a phone now, but preparing, setting up for hours, getting ready and for the person involved to know that all of that effort going on behind the scenes, was to create this one image that the outside world would see and I think that, certainly for me as a queer person, resonates with well, what are the preparations that I put into self, right, and what are the things that, the thoughts that I have about how I will present to the outside world, right? A way to be comfortable with myself but also just get on in the world and those hours of preparation or thoughts or introspective times and then what you get is the finished outside presentation, which is your slide. Which is hopefully as magical as this is to me. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Thank you. That’s lovely. how do you feel then about having your voice represented in the museum? 

PARTICIPANT 1: I hope that people can understand what I’m saying and I didn’t talk too fast. But really proud. I am a lover of words. I write, I enjoy listening to spoken word. I love what this story and the picture that words can paint as much as the pictures that we can see and this for me was a perfect combination of both. I hope that I’ve been able to do the slide justice and that people have got a feel for it and are curious about it and now want to go and explore magic lanterns, because they are so cool. 


INTERVIEWER 1: That’s great, thank you. What is the importance for you of this project? 

PARTICIPANT 1: This project is really important to me. Having clear first-person queer stories told and linked intrinsically to pieces of art history and art’s a collective art, not a community art, like the ones stored in the RAMM, helped to rebuild maybe shorn cords that tie us in with Exeter, with Devon, with our communities. That someone will come along and take a moment to listen to a piece of art derived from some words that I’ve said, but also words from the rest of the LGBT community are, it makes my heart sing, it really does, and someone will take beauty from that, and make a connection with so many positive and beautiful images and artifacts that will be in the exhibition itself. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Thank you. Is there anything that you haven’t said, that you think I wish I’d said that, that you would like to? 

PARTICIPANT 1: I doubt it. [laughs] No, I really loved this image, I did really go off into a black hole when I came across the collection first and start looking through and I go back and dip into it every couple of days now and those snapshots into people’s lives and existences and the things they were interested in at the time has given me a massive feeling of connection to centuries before I’ve even been born and I think that’s one of the many wonderful things about the RAMM, that as you walked through you can get that sense of connection, there will be things there that are from times when prevailing thought was not something you agreed with but you can understand the drivers of people and a lot of the thinking behind the collectors who were bringing objects back or thoughts back or philosophies back and tried to share them with as many people as possible, so yeah, it’s amazing to be a part of that. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Brilliant. Thank you so much. 

PARTICIPANT 1: Okay, thank you. 

[00:14:36] End of transcript