Sunderland National Glass Centre stages a spectacle

An exhibition on the history of eye care has opened at Sunderland's National Glass Centre

Artificial eye fitting set, 1918
Artificial eye fitting set, 1918

An eye-opener of an exhibition has opened at a North East centre.

The National Glass Centre in Sunderland is staging a display of items dating from the 1880s onwards on how eye care has changed over the years.

Exhibits include a set of 21 glass eyes from 1918 which were used to treat wounded soldiers from the First World War.

Another tray of 64 glass eyes was used to demonstrate various eye conditions and diseases.

Today, many of these diseases are rarely encountered due to better hygiene, quicker intervention and more effective treatments.

The exhibition, called The Mechanics of Optometry, runs until May 11 and is linked to the centre’s main exhibition, titled Spectacles: The Oliver Goldsmith Collection, which showcases the work of one of the most successful British spectacle design companies of the mid-20th Century.

The eyes exhibition is in collaboration with Neil Handley, of the British Optical Association Museum at The College of Optometrists.

Eye massager, c. 1920-1929 A mechanical device used to exercise the muscles of the eyeball
Eye massager, c. 1920-1929 A mechanical device used to exercise the muscles of the eyeball

The museum is recognised as one of the oldest collections of optometry in the world, with over 20,000 items.

Objects on show in Sunderland include:

  • An eye massager from the1920s. This was used to exercise the muscles of the eyeball, based on the now disproven notion that exercise could improve eyesight and even eliminate the need for glasses.
  • A self-test optometer. This is a simple folding cardboard device used test the range and power of vision. It was designed for home use and often handed out by door-to-door salesmen or posted to areas with no local optometry services.
  • A Giles-Archer colour unit from 1935 - a device used to test pilots for colour blindness. The electric light bulb illuminates a series of colours that an aviator might encounter while flying.
  • A stereoscope which was used to view two card pictures which merged into one image.
  • A case from 1894 containing 43 pairs of metal-rimmed and gold-rimmed trial lenses, plus two trial frames. This traditional lens-testing method has now been replaced by automatic refraction machines.
  • A pupillometer, which was used to measure the diameter of the pupil and the distance between the pupils.
  • A tropometer, from 1909, which was a brass telescopic device used to measure the rotation of the eyeball.
  • A binocular Vision Stereoscope. The operating knobs of this device show the mechanical precision of ophthalmic instruments. Two variable prisms can be minutely adjusted to assess and measure the ability of the two eyes to operate together.

Also on show is a small companion exhibition of a selection of new work made by the University of Sunderland’s Art and Design foundation and glass and ceramics students, called Double Double Vision, responding to the themes of eyes and vision.

The term optometry comes from the Greek words optos, meaning eye or vision, and metria, meaning measurement. The study of optics goes back to ancient times, when scholars in Greece and India shaped rock crystal and quartz to create lenses.


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