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

Models of vertical transmission at the Science Museum

I have suggested that a form of vertical transmission could be said to have existed amongst the nineteenth-century scientist-lecturers at the RI, inculcating in that organisation a particular approach to the delivery of lecture-demonstration that endures to the present day. In order to suggest the transmission of those practices to the Science Museum I propose an exploration of the inter-relationships of its Guide Lecturers in terms of vertical transmission. Always operating in discrete pairs until 1977 when the number expanded to three, a pattern can be discerned whereby one Guide Lecturer remains behind following the departure of another. The remaining lecturer then becomes the exemplar model for future delivery practices and in this way a transmission of style and approach can be traced through the sixty years or so that the Guide Lecturers were operational. This pattern of transmission can be seen in the diagram (Figure 2):[21]

Figure 2

Timeline showing vertical transmission of performance practice amongst guide lecturers at the Science Museum 1924 to 1986

Vertical transmission of performance practice amongst Guide Lecturers at the Science Museum 1924–c.1986

Richards, Groom, Wall and Freeborn are here positioned in the ‘master’ role, serving to pass on the existing practices as each new Guide Lecturer (the ‘disciple’) takes up the role. Since, throughout almost fifty of the approximately sixty years of the role’s existence, just two men worked together at any one time, the new recruit would certainly have observed the existing Lecturer at work. Training, such as it was, would likely have taken the form of observations, gaining understanding from the experience and practice of the more established Lecturer how to capture and hold audience attention. In replicating what they witnessed a standard practice was established and passed on. The Guide Lecturers’ routine of watching others before gradually taking on delivery duties recalls the practices in place at the RI in the nineteenth century, and enables a reading of their lecturing practices as a ‘physical storyline’ (Pitches, 2011, p 141) that continued throughout much of the twentieth century. The fact that of the four men I have identified as ‘masters’, the first three served in the role for extended lengths of time further enhances this idea – they were well practiced, experienced and skilled in their own right and their longevity in the role helped to ensure the long-term continuation of physical practices.[22] Of course, their practices would likely have continuously influenced each other during the regular course of their activities, not only as a matter of training, or learning the role. A photograph of the Christmas Lectures 1963–64 (Figure 3) reveals how one Guide Lecturer, Mr van Riemsdijk, operated the lighting whilst the other, Major V C Wall, gave the lecture-demonstration:

Figure 3

Black and white photograph of Major Wall giving a lecture demonstration to school children in 1963

Christmas Lectures 1963–64, Science by the Fireside. Major V C Wall demonstrating, Mr van Riemsdijk with spotlight

It is impossible to know if activity of this kind was often repeated, especially since there were Museum Assistants who aided the Lecturer with the setting up of demonstration equipment. But it seems plausible that they may well have taken this two-hander approach to special events such as the Christmas Lectures where they would have been keen to create an atmosphere that was even more exciting than usual. If this were so, then opportunities to watch more experienced Lecturers at work would have been plentiful. At the time of the photograph (Figure 3) van Riemsdijk would have been in the role for approximately one year, while Wall was already in his sixth year as Guide Lecturer.

It can be seen then, how a vertical transmission was established amongst the Guide Lecturers that endured until there was a move towards more informal methods of learning in the Museum.[23] In terms of connecting these practices to nineteenth-century methods, specifically those at the RI, and enhancing the Explainer lineage, we must return to the impact of the events in 1954.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160604/008