Flanders takes pioneering role to digitise historical photographs on glass plates

17 Aug 2022

170,000 glass plates are being digitised for the general public and seeing the light of day again for the first time.

Meemoo, Flemish Institute for Archives, digitises archival content for the cultural, government and media sectors. It has now launched a new and unique project to digitise some 170,000 glass plates – the first time this has been done on such a large scale in Europe. Specialists will continue to work on this for the next one and a half year, as the director of meemoo today announced at a press conference at the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) in Antwerp on the eve of the International Day of Photography.

‘This project is the first of its kind in Europe. Taking high-resolution photographs and digitising such a huge collection of glass plates from Flemish museums, heritage libraries and archives is not being done anywhere else on such a large scale as it is here,’ says Nico Verplancke, director of meemoo. ‘Together with our partners, we’re safeguarding this historically relevant content for the future and making it accessible to the general public. The glass plate has been in use since the 19th century, making it one of the oldest carriers for preserving photographs. And the images on these fragile glass plates have great historical value, giving us a picture of day-to-day life in the 19th and 20th centuries.’ This project once again proves the power and historical significance of each image, but also the magic, because the glass plates include fairy-tale images which were used for educational purposes, and cartoons before the current use of the term even existed.

A remarkable photo by Antwerp photographer Rik Selleslags, with a young mother expressing milk being helped by a nun (z.d.), the destroyed interior of a church following a bombardment during the First world War with dead bodies in the foreground (1914-1918), nine newborns with sisters and mothers in Roesbrugge maternity hospital near Poperinge during the war (1916-1919), or a young Willy Sommers on a postcard (1975-1990). These are all unique glass plate images – gems that have been hidden from the general public for many years because glass plates are extremely fragile. This carrier was used from the 19th century onwards to display images, but largely made way for photographs on plastic in the second half of the 20th century. Slides became increasingly popular, as many people will remember from family parties and lectures. Either way, glass plates contain an immense wealth of information.

An image can speak a thousand words, and these glass plates include images with huge historical value which we absolutely must not allow to be lost. Most glass plates are almost a hundred years old, and it’s not easy to make them available to the general public because they are so fragile. Handling them with the utmost care and digitising them correctly ensures we can make them accessible for everyone, both now and in the future.

- Nico Verplancke, director of meemoo.

Record number of 170,000 glass plates digitised

Meemoo identified a total of 170,000 glass plates to digitise when making a large-scale inventory of 31 archives, museums and heritage libraries in Flanders last year. With some 46,000 glass plates, Ghent University has the largest collection of the participating archives. Mechelen city archive and FOMU (Photo Museum Antwerp) have over 21,500 and 11,000 glass plates, respectively.

We’re collaborating with digitisation company GMS from the Netherlands on this project. They’re digitising the glass plates on site at some archives, but most of the glass plates will be sent to the Netherlands for processing. Once digitised, the glass plates will be returned to the museums, archives and libraries for safe storage. The glass plates from the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) are among the first to leave for the Netherlands.

The various Antwerp museums have all sorts of glass plates in their collections, depicting a very wide range of subjects: shipyards, fairy tales, historic façades, the Antwerp World Fair, natural landscapes, celebrities and parades. These historic images are extremely valuable but barely accessible because they are so fragile. Digitising them means that we will soon be able to make them available online, to better highlight the history of Antwerp and its port.

- Annelies Valgaeren, coordinator for collection digitisation at MAS.

The MAS is also extremely proud of the fairy-tale collection digitisation, with glass plates that were displayed in schools to educate children last century. This collection will also be made digitally accessible for young and old.

No easy task

Digitising this type of material is not easy, because glass plates can’t simply be placed on a scanner; the plates can damage the scanner and are furthermore too thick for it to fully close. And conversely, a warmed up scanner can damage the extremely sensitive glass plates. Together with GMS, a specialist digitisation company from Sliedrecht in the Netherlands, meemoo is taking all these challenges and risks into account, which is why we’ve chosen to digitise the glass plates using photographic capture.

Pictured: digitisation of glass plates, GMS

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Our partner GMS uses a specific method and specially equipped studios. They dust off the glass plates with a soft brush and place them on a transparent surface with a light source underneath and sometimes above as well. Then they aim a camera perpendicularly at it with the correct settings – aperture, white balance and resolution per dimension – to take a high-resolution picture.

- Loes Nijsmans, project leader for the glass plates project.

Flanders makes historical photos publicly accessible

All digitised glass plates will gradually be made available on meemoo’s online platforms and the platforms of the archives, libraries and museums that collaborated on this project from next summer. Everything will be ready by the end of 2023. The digitisation project is part of the Flemish Government’s Resilience Recovery Plan and is receiving European support.

We’re extremely proud of this digitisation project for glass plates which is part of GIVE - Gecoördineerd Initiatief voor Vlaamse Erfgoeddigitalisering (Coordinated Initiative for Flemish Heritage Digitisation). The project is part of the Flemish Government’s Resilience Recovery Plan and is receiving support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). As the Flemish Government, we believe it is crucial that our rich past is not lost for future generations. The images on the glass plates provide a unique insight into our society from over 100 years ago. It’s our duty to treat them with the utmost care and make them accessible to all.

- Jan Jambon, Flemish Minister for Culture.


  • Vrouw poseert halfnaakt voor muurschilderij (ca. 1900), AMSAB-ISG, Collectie Lateur

  • Willy Sommers (1975-1990), UGent Boekentoren, Collectie Etienne De Mulder

  • Duinkerke in puin na oorlogsbombardementen (1940), Liberas

  • Man bij zijn hondenmelkkar (voor 1900), UGent Boekentoren, collectie Clemens Trefois

  • Mannelijke studenten Lichamelijke Opvoeding in de turnzaal van het HILO, Gent (ca. 1925), UGent Boekentoren (glasnegatief, door meemoo omgezet in een positief)

  • Team Museum Plantin-Moretus, met bekende conservator Max Rooses (zittend rechts) (voor 1904), Museum Plantin-Moretus

  • Zuster en vrouw met kolfmachine (z.d.), Industriemuseum

  • Vrouwen aan het strand van Oostende (1920-30), FOMU

  • Sprookje 'Tafeltje dek je' (ca. 1920), MAS, Collectie Volkskunde

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