Collections

Since 1901, we have collected the material heritage of opticians; the clinical equipment used in-practice, and spectacles, sunglasses, contact lenses and other devices they have prescribed and supplied to aid and protect patients’ eyes. We now maintain a combined museum collection and archive, comprising over twenty eight thousand historical items relating to the diagnosis and correction of refractive error, visual impairment and ocular disease.  

This part of the collection comprises the archive of the former British Optical Association (1895-1980) the world’s first professional body for optometry, together with that of related organisations with which it later amalgamated to form what is now the College of Optometrists in 1980. Here are the minute books, the membership registers, past examination papers and certificates of qualification, conference programmes, correspondence and information on the various headquarters we have occupied. We also preserve business records for various optical companies including correspondence, trade catalogues, price lists and advertisements. 

Our philatelic collection comprises international postage stamps and first day covers bearing depictions of spectacle wearers and other topics of ophthalmic and ophthalmological interest. 

The museum preserves over 3000 pairs of spectacles, from the rudimentary applied technology of the seventeenth century through to the high-fashion designer eyewear of the twenty-first, as well as historic examples of other optical devices and aids to vision including scissor spectacles, folding eyeglasses, pince-nez, lorgnettes, magnifiers, quizzing glasses and monocles. We hold the oldest pair of temple spectacles (spectacles with sides) to be seen in a public collection and many other examples of the British spectacle maker’s craft, as well as glasses from many other parts of the world. Our collection of protective spectacles and eye goggles, including sunglasses and sports eyewear, reminds us of the importance of looking after our eyes in a variety of environments and working conditions. We also have an unrivalled collection of ophthalmic lenses for single vision and multifocal prescriptions, including examples of coated and tinted lenses. 

The contact lens collection contains many rare or unique examples associated with some of the most important pioneers of the discipline, including Josef Dallos, George Nissel, Frank Dickinson, Keith Clifford Hall and Norman Bier. We have examples of very early scleral shells, some of the first corneal lenses and the first commercially available soft lenses through to modern silicone hydrogel lenses and the therapeutic lenses of today. 

Our collection of artificial eyes and ocular prosthetics contains some of the most exquisite products of the technician’s art. These items remind us of the dedicated efforts to assist people with facial disfigurement of the most visible kind. It’s not just about how we can see, but how we are seen by others and the universal desire to present a ‘normal’ appearance. Some of these false eyes have even deceived optometry students! 

We hold several hundred coins and medals, some from as far back as the sixteenth century, either depicting spectacle-wearers or persons distinguished in the optical and medical field. 

How we adorn and surround our eyes has been of concern since ancient times. We have a substantial collection of eye cosmetics including eyeliner for men and women, mascara and eyelash extensions, as well as special spectacles to help you see while applying your make-up. 

Our collection of eye baths and ocular hygiene devices is probably the most significant in any UK museum. The Peter and Jean Hansell Collection of Eye Baths, donated by the late Dr Jean Hansell in 2012, is surely the finest of its type in any public collection. 

The museum possesses a range of microscopes and scientific instruments, as well as photographic equipment and cameras, many of them manufactured or retailed by British opticians. Some of the telescopes and opera glasses are also objects of great beauty and decorative workmanship. 

The museum has a fine collection of the everyday working equipment used in refraction work and sight-testing, as well as some more recent sophisticated equipment for examining and imaging the human eye. Our collection of orthoptic equipment reminds us how an entirely separate specialism grew out of optometry. Our collection of colour vision tests and lanterns is especially popular with researchers.

Since at least the 1920s, the museum had also collected aesthetic items and works of art, including sculpture and ornaments, paintings, prints and drawings. These depict both well-known and ordinary spectacle wearers as well as key figures in the history of optics. We have satirical engravings by the likes of Hogarth and Cruikshank, and many images documenting the prejudice shown to those with visual impairment.

Social historians value greatly our collection of images of opticians and their practices as well as industrial images of spectacle and lens production.

The College's collection of rare books is now preserved primarily for historical reasons and includes important works such as first edition of Newton’s Opticks and the Ophthalmodouleia or Augendienst by Georg Bartisch, the first book on the eye to be published in a vernacular language.