Museum Collections

At present the collections of the British Optical Association Museum include 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.

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The Museum possesses the spectacles of various famous personalities including Dr Johnson, C. P. Snow and Ronnie Corbett, as well as a pair made for Johnny Depp (which he rejected). It owns the only known pair of Scarlett-type temple spectacles in the world (c.1730), a rare collection of spyglass fans and a distinguished set of porcelain eyebaths. The collection of oil paintings, all on some optical theme, has recently undergone restoration and has been catalogued in association with the College's near neighbour, The National Gallery. Our magnificent Print Room is hung from floor (nearly) to ceiling with fascinating portraits, caricatures and satires by the likes of Stradanus, Cruikshank and Gillray - all with an ophthalmic or optical theme...but can you always tell what?

Unlike several other optical museums worldwide, which often tend to concentrate on eyewear alone, the Museum also cares for an extensive collection of optometric instruments. It collects the equipment used by optometrists in conducting the professional eye examination, prescribing and dispensing spectacles. Amongst other instruments these include test charts, refractor heads, ophthalmoscopes, retinoscopes, slit-lamps, keratometers and focimeters. You can learn more about their development in the online exhibitions on this website. We have smaller but noteworthy collections of teaching aids, microscopes, telescopes and cameras. Other highlights include some 160 glass eye models illustrating external diseases, injuries and ocular malformations, as well as a growing number of artificial eyes and ocular prostheses, representing what was once a common sideline for UK opticians. It's why a tv broadcast once described us as a World of Eyeballs.

The BOA Museum is home to an internationally significant Contact Lens Collection (CLC) which has been built up from a number of sources and is under active development. The CLC was augmented recently by gifts from several individuals who were active in the pioneering days and various contemporary manufacturing companies, most notably AMO, Cantor & Nissel, Hydron, Rayner Ltd and Bausch & Lomb (UK) Ltd. Objects from abroad, most notably the former Czechoslovakia, make this collection of far wider importance. We even have Leonardo di Caprio's contact lens! The Norman Bier Archive was donated in 2010 and his associated personal collection of contact lenses, artificial eyes and low vision aids was transferred to the museum from City University in August 2013.

The Museum operates according to a formal Collections Development Policy and the collections are ever-growing, albeit expansion these days is mainly through gifts. In 2002 American Optical donated a number of objects and archival items relating to BAO and companies they had taken over including such historic names as J & H Taylor Ltd, UK Optical and M. Wiseman & Co Ltd. We were fortunate to acquire the J. Lizars Opticians Collection from Scotland in 2002 and the Boots Opticians Collection was donated to the College in 2003, having previously been on loan. Leading British designer Tom Davies began depositing his archive with us in 2010 and we have been the lucky beneficiaries of substantial donations of material from the likes of Polaroid UK, Lafont Paris and Kirk Originals, amongst others. The Peter and Jean Hansell Collection of Eyebaths, donated by Dr Jean Hansell in 2012, is surely the finest of its type in any public collection. The Norman Bier Collection of Contact Lenses, Artificial Eyes and Low Vision Aids, transferred to us in 2013 from City University, has bolstered our already rich holdings in these subject areas. We can almost start to talk in terms of an embarrassment of riches!


You can explore these pages about the museum collections


World of Eyeballs

In January 2006 tv presenter Nigel Farrell visited the Museum to feature the collections for his programme Off the Beaten Track, part of ITV's regional output. The piece was broadcast in the London area the following June and includes views of the College exterior, Sutcliffe Room (since refurbished!), Print Room and one of the museum stores.

Nigel tells the story of the 1889 Automatic Sight Testing Machine, the Army Spectacle Depot's launch into artificial eye making and the chance discovery of the museum's unique Scarlett-type spectacles in 1990, which he recreates even though this actually took place in our previous building at Knaresbrough Place...but why ruin a good story? 

He interviews curator Neil Handley and sums up his visit to the College as entering the 'World of Eyeballs'.