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


Spectatorship of Bragg’s 1954 lecture-demonstrations at the RI resulted in traces of their forms remaining and residing intangibly in the memories and experiences of the Guide Lecturers. These intangible traces then re-appeared, in ‘continually moving, dissolving and re-forming pattern[s]’ (Bratton, 2003, p 38), as embodied elements in their own post-1954 performances of lecture-demonstrations at the Science Museum. In turn, those Science Museum practices were then recycled and transmitted to become inscribed in the traditions of performance in that institution, ultimately finding a route through various iterations of the 1980s assistant-type role, towards the contemporary performed work of the Explainer. This model offers a strong example of Diana Taylor’s notion of acts of behaviour that are played out in subtly different forms with each new iteration, as if memory is being replayed: ‘They reconstitute themselves, transmitting communal memories, histories, and values from one group/generation to the next’ (Taylor, 2003, p 20).

From this alternative narration of RI and Science Museum histories, focusing on the role of the Explainer through the lens of embodied knowledge transmission, I conclude that traces of the lecture-demonstration practices as first devised by Humphry Davy and emulated by other scientist-lecturers at the RI in the nineteenth century, will continue to reside in the embodied presentational practices of Explainers within the SMG. The attendance in 1954 of Science Museum Guide Lecturers at Bragg’s RI lectures thus established a critical intertheatrical (and inter-institutional) link in the Explainer lineage that not only brings together two significant public scientific organisations, but also ties, by a ‘slender, unbreakable thread’, popular contemporary explaining practices to a rich tradition of elite lecture-demonstration conventions.



I am grateful to all the SMG Explainers and Learning Managers past and present who have shared their experiences and thoughts with me and allowed me to observe them at work.

All references to the Lawrence Bragg Papers are by Courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160604/010