Hewitt, Martin (2012) Beyond scientific spectacle: image and word in nineteenth century popular lecturing. In: Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship, 1840-1910. Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century (15). Pickering & Chatto, London, UK, pp. 79-95. ISBN 9781848933064

No doubt that the culture of the popular lecture in Victorian Britain was a culture of spectacle. There is a very obvious, indeed visible, genealogy of lecturing from Michael Faraday’s electricity lectures to the Royal Institution in the 1820s and 1830s to Sir Robert Ball’s popular and populist expositions of astronomy in the 1880s and 1890s, which deployed experimental demonstration or technologies of display to communicate physical truths to audiences both specialized and general. Recent studies (for example of Lightman and Morus) have helped to emphasise the extent to which the popular lecture participated in some of the most pervasive characteristics of Victorian culture, its exhibitionary impulses, its museological textures, its luxuriance of display. However, these studies, like much of the existing literature on public lecturing come from within the History of Science. The aim of this chapter is to ask what happens to the imperative to spectacle and illustration in the overwhelming majority of nineteenth century public lectures that were not scientific. It argues that although in part the non-scientific lecture sought its spectacular effects from the same technologies as the science lecture, its diagrams, illustrations and lantern slides, these methods were themselves far from universal for much of the period. In consequence, it can be argued that the public lecture more often than not came to rely on the spectacle of the lecturer and indeed on the picture of words. In exploring this phenomenon, this chapter seeks to raise questions about the breadth and richness of the cultures of display in Victorian popular culture.

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