Science at the Fair: Performing Knowledge and Technology in Western Europe, 1850-1914 (SciFair)

SCIFAIR aims to conduct pioneering research on the role itinerant show people played in the transmission and popularisation of science and technology at Western European fairgrounds between 1850 and 1914. At a time when modern communication media were not yet in place and only a minority of the population could read, large groups of people were actually dependent on travelling performances and displays for information: in so-called anatomical cabinets, zoological and anthropological museums and scientific theatres, show people demonstrated ‘wonders of nature’ and spectacular scientific developments.

The project advances the hypothesis that the fair in this period was not merely a local folk tradition, but a hub for international exchange in which itinerant entertainment played a pivotal and modernising role in the circulation and popularisation of science amongst people across the social spectrum, relying on efficient international networks. In order to test this hypothesis, the project will bring together a multilingual and multidisciplinary team of researchers that will combine methodologies from theatre and performance studies with perspectives from history of science, media studies and digital humanities to analyse practices of science performance across national boundaries and map transnational networks of Western European fairground theatres.

SCIFAIR will not only study explicit didactic discourses but also analyse how implicit knowledge and social values of health, gender, nation, class or race were challenged or reinforced. By analysing the fair as a performative event, the project will advance a conceptual shift in media historiography to a historiography of media performance and thus contribute to our understanding of the social and cultural role of the fair in knowledge circulation. SCIFAIR will thus make a major contribution to media and performance history, as well as to the history of science and knowledge transfer.