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

The significance of 1954

The importance of presence as a pre-requisite for embodied transmission is of particular significance in relation to what I position as the inter-institutional transmission that occurred between the RI and the Science Museum in 1954, a ‘missing link’ in the histories of both organisations that is pivotal in the new historiography of the SMG with which my larger doctoral project is concerned.[11]

The Guide Lecturer role had been introduced at the Science Museum some thirty years earlier when, in 1924, a newly recruited Captain E Smith began giving twice-daily tours of the galleries. By 1954 the role had expanded to comprise a combination of gallery and lecture theatre lectures in science and engineering subjects, with two lecturers regularly delivering a total of sixty lectures between them. The then Director (1950-56) F Sherwood Taylor had first-hand experience of the lecture-demonstrations at the RI having himself delivered the 1952 Christmas Lectures, How Science has Grown. By this time the Christmas Lectures had been established and successful for over 125 years, and by presenting at the RI Sherwood Taylor had the opportunity to experience personally the powerful effect that observing practical science in action could have on an audience. The Science Museum Bulletin for Michaelmas Term 1955 offers the context for the first series of Special Lecture Demonstrations that were held in July of that year:[12]

A few years ago our Director, Dr. F. Sherwood Taylor, gave the famous Children’s Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution, and he was so struck with the response and the enthusiasm which they aroused that he resolved to introduce some similar lectures in the Science Museum.[13]

The physical act of delivering the Christmas Lectures at the RI also forms an important connection between Sherwood Taylor and the line of scientists who have maintained the vertical transmission of lecture-demonstration practices since the nineteenth century, continuing Curry’s ‘slender, unbreakable thread’.

Sherwood Taylor’s active involvement in the unique moment of performance at the RI evidently had a powerful impact on him such that he sought to create something similar at the Science Museum. In consciously seeking to emulate the successful practices of the RI he would doubtless have been aware that audiences who came to the Science Museum would likely have previously encountered RI presentations – he was tapping into pre-established performance conventions. He thus identified the possibility of including regular practical demonstrations as an important addition to the Theatre Lectures and one that was intended to offer something more enticing than simply ‘verbal information’.[14] He was supported in this venture by the findings of the Conference of Schoolteachers that had been held at the Museum on 11 September 1954. Conference participants had expressed a desire for ‘demonstrations of experiments which were beyond the means of the school laboratory’ and it was apparent that those science teachers consulted discerned great value in this practical activity, and thus, it was hoped, would make regular visits with large parties of schoolchildren.[15]

The most significant development towards fulfilment of this ambition came later in September 1954 when Sherwood Taylor met with Sir Lawrence Bragg, at that time Director of the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory at the RI, for the specific purpose of discussing his plans regarding the ‘provision of lectures for schools, illustrated by experiments’.[16] Both were at pains to ensure that overlap of content and audience should not occur and thus, as the Minutes of a special meeting held to discuss the issue in the Director’s Office on 30 September 1954 record, instead of Sixth Form students the Museum would concentrate on ‘lecture-demonstrations for the general public, and for students of Fifth Form standard and below’.[17] The Minutes also show that there was enthusiasm from the Guide Lecturers for developing new demonstrations. The meeting concluded with the Guide Lecturers resolving to prepare ‘some three or four lectures […] submitting estimates for their needs of apparatus’ and in this way the Science Museum’s commitment to the provision of a programme of regular lecture-demonstrations was sealed.

The contribution made by the RI in establishing the special lecture-demonstrations as a regular feature at the Science Museum was, however, to go further than courteous collaboration in order to avoid overlap of audiences and theme. On the first page of the Action Arising from Conference of Schoolteachers document is a reference to an event that is of critical importance to this history:

The Guide Lecturers attended the lecture-demonstrations for schools given by Sir Lawrence Bragg at the Royal Institution in December, to study the methods employed.[18]

Only two Guide Lecturers, Mr G B L Wilson and Mr Sidney Groom, were employed at the time and it is therefore assumed that it was they who observed Bragg’s December 1954 lecture(s).[19] The plural reference to the lecture-demonstrations suggests that the Guide Lecturers experienced at least two, and it is possibly, likely even, that they would have attended others out of personal interest, giving them the opportunity to begin to understand the performance strategies adopted.[20] Crucially, to return to Diana Taylor’s concept of the ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice/knowledge (2003, p 19), it places them at the knowledge production site, present during the act of transmission.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160604/007