Go back to article: Threading through history: the vertical transmission of Davy, Faraday and Tyndall’s lecture demonstration practices

After 1954: contemporary perspectives

Taylor’s assertion that a critical element of repertoire transmission is presence, or ‘being there’ (2003, p 20), emphasises that it is the intrinsic interaction between presenter and audience which enables the passing on of practice. The fact that the form of the lecture-demonstrations performed at the RI has altered little in the two hundred years or so since they began suggests that this transmission of its repertoire is strong. The definite physical presence of the Guide Lecturers at certain of the RI lecture-demonstrations for schools in December 1954 affirms the appropriate conditions for the effective transmission of embodied knowledge and practices. As Taylor observes, the ‘repertoire […] allows scholars to trace traditions and influences’ (2003, p 20) and the Guide Lecturers’ conscious act of accepting and emulating the RI scientists’ methods and approaches as such, informs my own construction of the lineage from nineteenth-century scientist lecture-demonstrator to contemporary SMG Explainer. Returning to the Science Museum to continue with their own efforts to communicate the meanings and uses of science to school groups and beyond, the 1954 Guide Lecturers were both consciously and unconsciously contributing to the transmission of rituals and traditions, established elsewhere, that remain extant as an inherent part of its culture (Figure 4). The vertical transmission that existed amongst them facilitated an enduring sense of ‘againness’ (Taylor, 2003, p 21) as each new generation appropriated the embodied knowledge. Important to note here is that while the years in between the culmination of the Science Museum Lecture Service and contemporary Explainer practices (c.1986–2000) are not a feature of this essay, they are developed in my broader thesis, where a variety of presentation roles at the Science Museum that can be seen as providing a connection between the two are elaborated upon. For example, my wider doctoral project identifies a series of roles emerging during the 1980s at the Science Museum that I position as the next phase in the Explainer lineage following on from the Guide Lecturers. These are the Discovery Room assistant (1981–83), Test Bed assistant (1984–86) and early iterations of the Launch Pad assistant (1986–88).

Figure 4

Black and white photograph of Major Wall giving a lecture demonstration to school children in 1969

Guide Lecturer Major V C Wall delivering the RI-inspired Christmas Lecture to schoolchildren at the Science Museum, December 1969

The Explainer-led science shows that were performed in the first part of the twenty-first century in Launch Pad[24] should be seen as the direct descendants of the lecture-demonstrations that began at the Science Museum in the mid-1950s, but, as I have suggested can also be seen as having roots in the practices of the nineteenth-century lecture-demonstrations at the RI. The Science Show format developed at the Science Museum has itself influenced other presentational forms adopted by Explainers at other SMG sites in the first part of the twenty-first century as it has developed a more overarching strategic influence.[25] My own participation as an audience member at some of these shows highlighted for me the fact that performance behaviours and actions are repeated and recurring across the sites. I suggest that this extends beyond the conscious intention on the part of the SMG to create a product that encapsulates the atmosphere of its Learning offer and can also be understood in terms that connect with Performance Studies concepts of ‘restored behaviour’ (Schechner, 2006), and the ‘recycling’ and ‘haunting’ (Carlson, 2003) of contemporary performance tropes by those from the past (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a science museum explainer giving a demonstration to school children

An Explainer at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester presents a science show, July 2015

A former Science Museum Explainer who began working in Launch Pad in 1988 recalled that there was a period of time before the Explainer team became properly established and organised when they started to instinctively perform demonstrations:

The Explainers started doing them by themselves to be honest, there were a couple of Explainers I worked with early on that had done performances in the old gallery, the first gallery, but they were haphazard, they weren’t on a timetable, there was no training…they did bubbles and I think they did a water rocket, but it was pretty much left up to them to do it, it wasn’t at all managed. And then when we moved to the new gallery upstairs (…) there wasn’t actually a performance space, so they’d wiped performances from the menu, so there was nowhere that you could perform and no facility for it, but they’re funny the Explainers, you know, we just started doing them – we found a corner and we just started doing them, and of course crowds formed and the public loved it.[26]

This recollection reveals an intuitive capacity for performing demonstrations, the type of which has remained in the Explainer presentation repertoire to the present day. Significantly there is a sense that traces of the early performances referred to here found their way into later practices – they were reconstituted or recycled. In this way they can be regarded as an example of Schechner’s assertion that our behaviours are multi-authored and constructed via the many layers of social interactions and rituals that have occurred both in the recent and more distant pasts. His conceptualisation of individuals as the ‘synthesizers, recombiners, compilers or editors of already practiced actions’ (2002, p 35) suggests there can be no entirely new and unique behavioural inventions. In this sense, it is as though aspects of the practices adopted by the Guide Lecturers following their spectatorship of the December 1954 RI lectures were re-emerging in these haphazard, semi-improvised gallery performances in the late 1980s.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160604/009