National Museums NI holds a wide range of historic photographs—almost 500,000 topographical, portrait and record images. Most are in black and white, and kept in print and negative format. The collection dates from around 1870, and mostly relates to the northern parts of Ireland. Other regions are also covered, especially the west. They describe:
- commercial and social life
- industrial and economic activity
- street scenes and townscapes
- land, sea, air, and road transport
- political and social events
Signature collections include:
- The natural history photography, and The Harland and Wolff Collection of shipyard photographs, taken by RJ Welch (1859—1936)
- W.A. Green (1870—1958) photography of rural industry
- The social realism of A.R. Hogg (1870—1939)
- Photographs taken by the Ulster Tourist Development Association, and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, between 1940 and 1980.
- The Dundee Collection, chronicling farm life in Sentry Hill, County Antrim.
- The Hackney Collection, charting the recruitment and training of the 36th Ulster Division in the First World War, and their journey to the Battle of the Somme and beyond.
Other important collections include the work of:
- Cecil Newman, describing local urban and road development in the 1960s and 1970s.
- Bob Martin, a shipyard worker whose images reflect life in Belfast and output at Harland and Wolff's in the1950s and 1960s.
- The Garland collection, which records the aftermath of the Belfast Blitz, 1941, and the work of local home defence agencies.
- The Browne collection of photographs relating to civil engineering projects post 1945
- The Glass Album relating to the Land War in Gweedore, County Donegal, in the 1880s.
- The Douglas Sobey Collection relating to the LGBT movement in Northern Ireland in the 1970s
- Photojournalism from 1970 by Martin Nangle, Bill Kirk and Frankie Quinn
The museum maintains a large collection of lantern slides—for use in magic lanterns, a 19th century forerunner of the slide projector—depicting social, economic, and industrial life in Ireland in the late 1800s and 1900s. We also hold a large photographic archive which includes copies of major collections held elsewhere, such as the Annesly, Young, and Langham collections.
The photographic collections also chart the development of photography itself. Our oldest photographs are daguerrotypes and calotypes from the dawn of the medium. We hold a collection of cameras, magic lanters, and photographic equipment, dating from the 1850s onwards.