Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship, 1840-1910

Edited by Joe Kember, John Plunkett and Jill A Sullivan, Pickering & Chatto, 2012.

The fourteen papers in this collection originated in a conference, Instruction, Amusement and Spectacle: Popular Shows and Exhibitions 1800-1914, in 2009, itself an output from an AHRC-funded project, Moving and Projected-Image Entertainment in the South-West 1840-1914. Pickering & Chatto have published them in its Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century series. Together they explore the important nexus of entertainment and popular science in the nineteenth century.

Science-based entertainment was astonishingly popular in the period with all levels of society, mostly occupying the place television later would. Developments in science and technology were seen as exciting, large sections of the population wanted to know how they worked, and canny exhibitors worked hard to stimulate and satisfy the demand. It was a national phenomenon, not one confined to metropolitan centres, and science lectures and shows took place in a wide variety of venues, appealing to men and women of all classes and ages.

The practical element was particularly important, a tradition of demonstration still with us in the shape of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures which began in 1825. But exposure to science did not only take place in halls, institutes and museums, it entered the home in the shape of educational toys and the popular press. Such pursuits were encouraged by increasing amounts of leisure time, a greater disposable income, and improving public transport, all of which made science increasingly accessible.

These displays were not merely designed to appeal to the intellect as rational recreations; for them to engage popular attention they had to have emotional and aesthetic components able to evoke a range of responses. Education was intertwined with spectacle, the whole comprising a satisfactory package. Even more, the educational rhetoric could be borrowed for less lofty enterprises, such as the freak show, where an emphasis on the sober scientific aspects conferred a sense of respectability, even though rather baser attitudes might also be present among the audience.

Highbrow and lowbrow may have been two ends of a spectrum, but there was an extensive amorphous middle ground where they merged. Skill was required in pitching the presentation: projecting a sense of wonder was perfectly acceptable within bounds, but likely to be dismissed as pointless, or even manipulative, if the scientific ingredients were deemed to be lacking in depth. Treading the line between earnest dullness and superficial flamboyance needed a great deal of care.

The essays focus, as the title suggests, on cultures of performance and exhibition as promoters of scientific and technological knowledge. There has been a great deal of interest in this area in recent years, aided by easier access to rare documentary sources. As is shown here, the enterprise has become increasingly interdisciplinary, drawing on a range of perspectives to integrate scholarship and give a rounded picture of the ways in which popular science seeped into the public consciousness.

The papers are grouped into four sections, though there is much overlap. The first part, Science and Spectacle, looks at the regional dimension of the promotion of science, and at James Wyld’s Great Globe in Leicester Square, a rival attraction to the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. The chapters in Word and Image discuss how audiences were engaged by verbal techniques as direct support for the visual aspect – in fact the personality and skill of the speaker was often considered more important than the visual element – but also at the popular science literature that formed a mutually-reinforcing knowledge network with shows, and which foregrounded the laudable aim of self-improvement. Included are papers on the Great Exhibition itself, and the intersection of religious, political and scientific discourses in the figure of Daniel William Cahill.

Science itself was in the process of transformation at this time. Not a static body of knowledge, its boundaries were constantly being renegotiated, but it itself was not a homogeneous domain, and different disciplines within it lent themselves more or less favourably to explication. Staging Knowledge examines how scientific exhibitions changed to keep pace with these various boundary changes, both by defining what was inside science, and by attempting to determine what was outside it: talking fish, for example (actually a seal with a very limited vocabulary).

As that example might suggest, hoaxing was frequent. The presentation of such wonders demarcated the science lecturer from the showman, throwing up issues of what counted as evidence for the authenticity of an exhibit. It also highlights the willingness of audiences to collude, sharing the joke and even subverting the hoax, by absorbing whatever instruction was available while discounting the clearly fanciful.

Finally, The Politics of Display considers the political environment and power relations in display, both in terms of the presenter and audience, and audience and objects viewed, as well as the influence of the exotic on presentation. Such displays served to reinforce stereotypes, as well as national identity, stressing England as a colonial centre, able to draw on the resources of its overseas possessions.

The essays cover a huge amount of ground. In general, they are accessible, only occasionally slipping into jargon. Along with the ‘talking fish’, giant globe and the more sedate magic lantern lectures, experiments, conversaziones and exhibitions, there are freak shows, panoramas and dioramas, Egyptian mummies, wrapped and unwrapped (distant in time certainly, though not the “thousands of centuries” claimed), Spiritualist séances (the weakest chapter in the book), the Great Gorilla Controversy of 1861, Zulus brought to London who didn’t appear to know their place, heated international disputes over how dinosaur skeleton casts should be mounted – the authors collectively, and very effectively, demonstrate the many pleasures of combining rational recreation with something a little less elevated.