Recreating the late Victorian popular science experience

Lead Research Organisation: University of St Andrews
Department Name: History

Abstract

Science and technology play prominent roles in our predictions of the future, whether we are imagining cures for disease, liberation from household chores, or interplanetary tourism. This was equally true in the late nineteenth century, when Victorians noted the significant technological and scientific advances since their grandparents' days: they were proud of bicycles and typewriters; of railways, steamships and electric telegraphs; of photography and electric lighting. Science fiction writers began to wonder what the world of the future would look like, while popularisers poured their energies into explicating the wonders of science and the workings of technology. The public could see these for themselves in the many demonstrations, lectures and shows that were part of late Victorian entertainment culture. Scientific shows were crucial to the process of selling the future to Victorian publics. They were highly skilled and often technologically sophisticated affairs that required careful management and meticulous choreography of performers' bodies and scientific apparatus. Our project aims to recreate such a show, and to perform it publicly.

This project brings together three academics with established track records of research into Victorian and Edwardian popular science; the project will enable them to work with two experienced performers, both of whom specialise in historic scientific acts (magic lantern lectures, and circus/side-show acts).

Planned Impact

The project touches on issues that are fundamental to the way we think about the future, and is thus of relevance to a wide audience of educators, campaigners and the public. The main outputs will be four public performances of the recreated Victorian science show. We plan to run shows in Manchester and Newcastle during summer 2013: in each city, we will run one show for a public, adult audience, and one show for schools. The shows will be the same, but the post-show discussions will be be adapted to suit the different audiences.

Members of the public who attend the performances (potentially 400 to 500 people) will benefit from a fuller understanding of the materiality and spectacle of Victorian science and technology through seeing them demonstrated. They will also be encouraged to think about the role of science and technology in historical change, and the reliability of predictions of future technology.

Members of the public and policy-makers with an interest in the stimulation and/or regulation of scientific research and technological development will be interested in the show's juxtaposition between Victorian and modern contexts, which encourages questions about the nature of technological change and its public impact.

Secondary school pupils who attend the schools performances will learn about the social and cultural role of science and technology in Victorian Britain, and use this knowledge to engage with topical questions about technological progress in the past and future, and the relationship between science and society.

Educators at secondary level will find the project materials and website of relevance to their work in developing pupils' understanding of the role of science and technology in historical change. Studying Victorian reactions to, and expectations for, science and technology will help pupils to think through related modern issues about the development and regulation of science and technology.

The performers who act as technical consultants to the project will benefit from closer engagement with academic researchers, which will give them a deeper understanding of the historical context and significance of their own future performances.

Museum and media professionals will be able to learn from our experiences of trialling a novel format for engaging the public with Victorian science and technology.

Publications


10 25 50
 
Description Our project aimed to a create a performance showcasing technologies of the 1890s; to perform it at two different venues; to reflect on what the experience of performance enabled us as historians to learn about Victorian shows; and to reflect on what we as humanities academics could learn about using material culture to engage modern audiences with issues about the role of technologies in shaping our imagined futures.



We learned many things about the nature of performing with other people and with complex technological artefacts, in non-ideal venues, and to unknown audiences. This has been incredibly helpful to us in thinking through how Victorian scientific performers dealt with such issues, and has raised a number of new points (especially about practical logistics) for us to investigate in our future research. Although some of these points will no doubt seem obvious to seasoned performers, we do believe that experiencing them for ourselves has been highly educational for us.



The things we learned about performance include:

• It takes far longer to set up a show, and test the equipment, than one expects. Even when doing it for the seventh time.

• Especially when you do it in a different (and unknown) venue each time.

• Different venues require the show to work differently: instruments may have to go in different places; performers may have to move in different ways; audiences may or may not be able to see so well (consider a flat room versus a raked theatre).

• Choreography (and practice) matters. We knew this, but we understand it better having done it!

• A show like this involved a lot of stuff (from instruments to costumes to theatrical drapes); travelling by public transport became very difficult (and impossible for one of us).

• Servants would have been very useful!

• Audiences may seem demographically similar, but nonetheless respond in different ways to the same show. We need a more sophisticated vocabulary for describing audiences.



The questions raised for our future historical research include:



• How did Victorian performers transport all their kit around the country?

• What was the limit of complexity to a one-man travelling show?

• How much did they know in advance about the venues in which they would be performing?

• How did they manage audience expectations (e.g. through advance advertising)?

• What sort of engagement did they have with their audiences, either during the performance, or afterwards?

• How did they carry (or bank) the money received on the door?
Exploitation Route Our performances sought to engage adult and teenager audiences with the history of science and technology by using demonstrations of working historical artefacts to encourage discussion and debate about technological change and imagined futures.



We found that:



Audiences really love to see historic equipment out of museum cases, and being used. Even though most of our demonstrations cannot have been particularly spectacular to 21st-century audiences, the fact that we were doing them with historic equipment was fascinating. For instance, they were impressed not by the actual sounds played by the phonograph, but by the fact that this mechanical device was able to play recorded sound at all.



Doing the show in costume and in character (as well as with historic equipment) helped to defamiliarise now-familiar phenomenon (such as recorded sound, and electric light) and assisted the audience in thinking historically. So did taking the time to explain the (unfamiliar) mechanism of the equipment (e.g. the phonograph).



Using historical artefacts was an incredibly successful way of getting audiences to relate from past to present, and to think about processes of technological change (Why did the Victorians do it that way? Why do we do it differently? How might we do it differently in the future?), and about consumer engagement with technologies (Who could afford to use this? What would they have used it for? How does that compare with the equivalent modern technology?). In the two sessions for school pupils, we purposefully engineered such discussion; in the public shows, it sometimes came up in the open discussion at the end, but was particularly notable after the formal close of the show, when we routinely had people coming forward to get up close to the historic equipment and ask more questions about it.
Sectors Education
URL http://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/victoriansciencespectacular/
 
Description Since the project ended, there have been a small number of follow-on activities (e.g. Aileen Fyfe has done some one-woman shows in St Andrews, to public audiences at the museum, and to young children at nursery and primary school). The main new activity was a collaboration with the Museum of the University of St Andrews, in 2014-15. In collaboration with the Museum outreach staff, Aileen Fyfe supervised two MLitt students to work with the Victorian technology handling collection (acquired during the AHRC project), and to develop schools workshops using it. The aim was to ensure that the historical artefacts would be used; and that good quality schools workshops could be designed, which would be deliverable in the future without direct involvement of the PI (i.e. to make these activities sustainable). This worked well; a primary school workshop involving the magic lantern and phonograph was delivered; and has now been adapted into a family workshop for delivery in the museum (as well as being available to schools).
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural
 
Description Birmingham performance and YouTube film 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 9 November 2013, University of Birmingham (as part of the AHRC-sponsored Oliver Lodge research network): public performance for around 60 adults

This led to interest from the Cheltenham science festival. Also, we had this filmed, and it has been edited into a YouTube film.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h-ULZrl-3E
 
Description Kensington Performance 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 28 September 2013, Isaac Newton Centre, Chelsea (as part of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's 'Celebration of Science'): public performance for around 50 adults (and some children).

We were asked to attend again in 2014.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description MUSA schools workshops (2014-15) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Postgraduate students on the Museums & Galleries MLitt course worked with the Victorian technology handling collection (derived from the AHRC grant) to develop interdisciplinary workshops for primary and secondary pupils. The primary workshops were delivered to a class of P6 children in spring 2015, with great feedback. The primary workshop has since been developed into a family workshop, and ran in Oct 2015. A second family workshop is under development - the student now works at the Museum of the University of St Andrews, and is able to continue developing the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015
 
Description Manchester Performance 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact 23 July 2013: this was a semi-public dress rehearsal. Lots of questions from academics about the purpose and rationale of the activity.

?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Manchester Portico Performance 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 23 July 2013, Portico Library, Manchester: a public show, attended by around 60 members of the public aged 18+

Lots of questions afterwards, including one from a c.10 year old, and several from keen local historians.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Newcastle Public Performance 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 11 September 2013, University of Newcastle (as part of the British Science Festival): a public show, attended by around 200 members of the public aged 12+

We have received requests to be involved at other science festivals, in London and potentially Cheltenham
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Newcastle Schools Performance 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact 12 September 2013, University of Newcastle (as part of the Schools Programme of the British Science Festival): two shows and discussion sessions for KS3 secondary pupils from two local schools (25 pupils and 3 teachers each).

KS3 students were engaged and interested; asked intelligent questions about the historical development of consumer technology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Roundtable discussion (Banff) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact This roundtable on leadership in the public humanities brought together participants from Britain, Canada and the USA. There was much discussion of the comparisons between UK Impact, and public humanities in the USA.

?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Schools workshops (MUSA) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Working with a postgraduate student, we further developed a set of workshop resources for using Victorian technologies with school children. The key impact is that the workshop materials are now available to our local university museum, and are used in their regular programme of events. I do not receive details of every time they use them, so I cannot report how many children are now reached.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016