In August I was extremely excited to be invited to shoot a little image film about my work on Victorian fantasy literature and science at Christ Church, Oxford. Christ Church kindly let me use some of Lewis Carroll’s own manuscript materials from their collection (have a look at some of their digitised items here) – including his photographs, proofs, sketches, letters, and his dedicated presentation copy of a first edition copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland! I also speak about Victorian children’s literature’s ties to Victorian Science Communication & Education, about Victorian Lunatic Asylums – and Charles Dickens’s visit to one – and how all of that can change how we think about Fantasy and Science Fiction Literature in general – I hope you like it!
On the 25th of November I will be giving a talk at the Abingdon Arms, Beckley, just outside Oxford.
The occasion is not only that the award-winning Pub overlooks Otmoor, the nature reserve which some believe may have inspired Lewis Carroll’s chessboard landscape in Through the Looking-Glass (I will investigate this claim), but also the planned resurrection of the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway through this area of scientific interest, which is noted especially for its biodiversity by the RSPB.
Oxford is well-known to have inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), but the extensive influence of the Oxfordshire countryside on Through The Looking-Glass (1871) is less frequently discussed. My talk will therefore not only uncover some of these inspirations, from Oxford’s architecture to Oxfordshire’s agricultural history, but also illuminate how Lewis Carroll’s wider interest in nature, science and industry – and thus also the railways – shaped Through the Looking-Glass, and explore how this can help us approach and rethink contemporary challenges posed to the balance between nature and the necessities of modern life. (Announcements for the talk have appeared also here and here)
On the occasion of the bicentenary of Frankenstein I will be discussing our fascination with Gothic tales at the Birmingham Literature Festival together with contemporary Gothic and Horror writers Andrew Michael Hurley (The Loney and Devil’s Day) and Jess Kidd (The Hoarder) who will also discuss and read from their latest books. The session will be chaired by Dr Serena Trowbridge.
The event has now sold out, but watch the facebook event page for further updates.
I will be speaking about automata in the history of science and psychology, literature and popular culture alongside Simon Schaffer and Elly Truitt on BBC4’s ‘In Our Time’ program with Melvyn Bragg on 20 Septemeber 2018. The broadcast will be available afterwards on iPlayer. If you haven’t seen Compton Verney’s Marvellous Mechanical Museum yet, you should definitely go – and get the wonderful book accompanying the exhibition.
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At BBC Broadcasting House for recording an interview for @bbcradio4 In Our Time on Automata, together with Simon Schaffer and Elly Truitt – and David Attenborough just walked past me. Programme will be available online after it's been aired at 9am tomorrow #automaton #automata #robots #ai #artificialintelligence #radio #broadcast #bbc #bbc4 #inourtime #histsci #history #litsci #scicomm #publicengagement
EDIT: This talk is now happening on Wednesday, 26th September 2018, 2:30-3:30pm!
I’m very excited to be giving a talk on ‘Automata in Literature and Culture’, fathoming the literary and psychological depths of our fascination with automata through history at The Marvellous Mechanical Museum exhibition, for which I acted as a consultant, at Compton Verney – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown‘s former abode. With Greek Mythology, Frankenstein, Rowland Emmet (and possibly even LEGO), there’s definitely going to be something for everybody! Tickets include entry to the exhibition (which you must see!).
PS: Don’t miss out on the gorgeous book accompanying the exhibition for which I wrote an essay!
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Excited to have received my contributor's copy of The Marvellous Mechanical Museum, accompanying the automata exhibition at @compton_verney for which I acted as consultant – this is the most beautiful thing I have ever been published in, with beautiful illustrations by @stuart_patience and alongside Simon Schaffer no less! Also come & hear my talk on on Wed 5th September at the exhibition! #automata #histtech #hitsci #literature #science #scienceevents #scicomm #frankenstein #frankenstein200 #etahoffmann #sandman
Earlier this week I was privileged to be interviewed about my doctoral research for a new video for the Oxford Grad Study Campaign. For this I was thrilled to return to Christ Church Library (thanks so much to Steven & Cristina for arranging everything on the day!), to introduce some items from their Lewis Carroll Collection, which included early sketches by Carroll for the characters in Alice in Wonderland, proof pages, as well as the presentation first edition copy of Alice to the college library, some of Carroll’s original photographs and letters (click through the Instagram gallery to see a few of those items) – what a memorable day!
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Feeling extremely privileged to be working with the Lewis Carroll collections at @christchurchoxford today for a little film for @oxfordgradstudy & @oxford_uni, this includes the author's presentation copy to the college, proof pages of the Alice novels, original sketches and more #Oxford #onlyinoxford #aliceinwonderland #outreach #publicengagement #academia #phd #archive #archives #research #kidlit #histsci
Last week I appeared live on TRT Showcase about adaptations of Alice in Wonderland together with author and fellow Carrollian Charlie Lovett. We spoke about our most fascinating finds in researching Lewis Carroll, early Alice theatre adaptations, Carroll’s library and real mad tea parties – have a look!
With Alice’s Day gone, ‘Insects Through the Looking Glass’ has now finished at the Story Museum – and we’ve had a fantastic time! We’ve met so many excited visitors, it’s been a really exhilarating experience. We owe our thanks, first of all to our hosts at The Story Museum, and our funders at the Royal Entomological Society and the British Society for the History of Science, but especially also all those who helped us make the event such a success – the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Beetle Boy author M.G. Leonard, illustrator Carim Nahaboo, and Tolkien expert Dr Dimitra Fimi!
For all those who haven’t been able to go – here are some thoughts and reflections on our exhibition – but we will also be travelling on, so watch this space…!
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Making of (pt.2) of 'Insects Through the Looking Glass': Our fantastic opening weekend at @thestorymuseum came with an illustration workshop led by the phenomenal @carim_nahaboo & a Traveling Insectarium (by metabugs.org) – lots of excited kids & squeamish parents (some converted) – and our Ento Desk (funded by @bshsnews) in action – photos by the lovely @lechatelle #museums #scicomm #sciencecommunication #publicengagement #interdisciplinary #curating #museums #scienceevents #scienceforkids #education #histsci #sciencehistory #entomology #illustration #naturalhistorymuseum #naturalhistory #childrensliterature #royalentomologicalsociety #insectweek
#scicomm at the Story Museum
As I explained to the Oxford Times, however you feel about insects, they have always fascinated us humans. Egyptians worshipped them as Gods, they inspired the most famous scientists in history, and they are characters in some of our favourite stories – they become deeply woven into our culture. But we also depend on insects for a healthy environment and our own survival. They pollinate our crops, remove waste from the environment, and create healthy soils. But recent headlines tell us about the sharp decline in bee populations, and entomologists warn us that if insects disappear, so do the vital services they provide us and our environment, putting us all in danger.
Despite their importance, insects are more often portrayed as objects of terror and spreaders of disease. However a quieter revolution has been happening for over 150 years in the stories we read to our children, in which insects have slowly conquered the role of heroes to challenge these negative attitudes. ‘Insects Through the Looking-Glass’ explores how ‘the little things that run the world’ inspired such famous children’s writers as Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, and M.G Leonard – award-winning author of the Beetle Boy trilogy.
With funding from The Royal Entomological Society we were excited to be part of their National Insect Week, and, hosted by Oxford’s Story Museum, the exhibition ran through to their Alice’s Day. Real insects (living ones from The Travelling Insectarium, and historical ones from the Oxford Natural History Museum’s collections), giant insect illustrations, historical entomology books, author readings, an illustration workshop and expert talks brought to life a literary journey from the Victorians age of discovery, to the environmental revolution of the twentieth century to the information revolution of today — to explore how the unique perspective of children’s literature has always led the way in shaping, and challenging how we perceive nature around us, and engage with it.
Entomology in literature – and history!
One of the centrepieces of our exhibition was the “Entomologist’s Desk” – a real collaborative effort. This exhibit was funded by the BSHS Outreach and Education Committee with the aim to engage with the historical side of our exhibition — click on the Instagram link below through the photos below for a ‘making-of’!
We wanted to show what actual entomological science inspired the authors’ thought, with magnifying glasses, pencils and paper provided, visitors themselves became the explorers of entomological history. On top of the desk we displayed reproductions of specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on their journeys upon which they devised their theories of evolution by natural selection. Some drawers contained displays of Victorian children’s science books which we know Lewis Carroll suggested, which were displayed alongside actual specimens from the museum at which we know he worked photographing their inventory (things you never expected to learn as a humanities scholar: pinning insects!). For a chance to handle these often fragile historical books other drawers contained laminated reproductions of the books displayed, but also Victorian science-fairytales, such as Charles Kingsley’s Water-Babies (1862-3), a story about actual and metaphorical metamorphosis in the natural world and in more philosophical ways, or Margaret Gatty’s Parables from Nature (1855), which contained a story about a indignant Caterpillar not quite dissimilar from Carroll’s in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). With this we wanted to show how historical environment influenced writers, and how such details, as for instance Carroll’s Caterpillar, actually already had currency in a literary, scientific and philosophical context – in the case of the Caterpillar as a vehicle for exploring the meanings of metamorphosis and transformation in nature, evolution, and, in the case of children’s literature, child development, in an educational and psychological sense. This traced the process of where scientific exploration blends into scientific, and eventually literary imagination, as in our drawers imaginary bread-and-butter-flies and rocking-horse flies happily intermingled with the real, but similarly portmanteau tiger-moths, crane-flies and mole-crickets of ‘real’ science.
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Making of (pt.1) of my first insect display cases for our 'Insects Through the Looking Glass' exhibition at @thestorymuseum , after a crash course in insect pinning at @morethanadodo We put together 2 large and two smaller, more creative, displays for our 'Entomologist's Desk' where they were on show together with Victorian Natural History books & laminated reproductions for visitors to peruse @bshsnews #museums #curating #naturalhistorymuseum #naturalhistory #entomology #insects #insectsofinstagram #ecology #history #scienceforkids #education #literature #childrensliterature #histsci #nationalinsectweek #royalentomologicalsociety
Literature meets Science
As we were located in the Story Museum, we really wanted to illuminate the creative process of our authors through the lens of their preoccupation with entomology.
We arranged an author reading by M.G Leonard, who also recounted how she overcame her fear of insects when she started researching them for her books and discovering what these little creatures were capable of – and it “blew her mind”. She explained also why her books have a clear mission. “We think the world is ours, but the micro world is surprising in ways we don’t even begin to understand”, she said, and warned: “We need to get our children appreciating and understanding the needs of all manner of wildlife. It is more important now than ever that we form a relationship and attitude to the natural world, or we risk losing it.”
Two talks about authors (who, unfortunately, can no longer speak for themselves) focused on the entomological interests of J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. Aimed at different audiences, the talk on Tolkien as one a stand-alone event attracted a wide variety of members of the public, from Middle Earth Enthusiasts to Tolkien scholars who joined us from the major Tolkien exhibition at the Bodleian Library. Dimitra Fimi spoke illuminatingly about insects being firm part of Tolkien’s world-building, he even had words for several species in his various imagined languages. A real highlight of the talk (that is, beside Dimitra singing one of Tolkien’s songs!) were Carim Nahaboo‘s amazing especially-commissioned illustrations of Tolkien’s insects which showed the detail of how species adapt to their environment (the Mordor-flies will haunt you in your dreams).
As part of Alice’s Day, a free, annual family event that attracts diverse audiences, we also welcomed some younger audiences, who now all know where Disney went wrong (anatomically) in their portrayal of the Caterpillar. As the curators, Chris Jeffs and I split our talk between the literary and historical, and the scientific side of ‘Insects in Wonderland’, and while I explained literary attractions of the idea of metamorphosis, and Chris showed why it is such a successful concept in evolutionary terms.
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Another sneak peek of some artwork for an event in National Insect Week coming up in June. This one is a Neekerbreeker, a species of cricket from the Midgewater Marshes in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Based on species of Mole cricket. #insect #concept #art #drawing #wip #nationalinsectweek #tolkien #jrrtolkien #neekerbreekers #neekerbreeker #samwise #midgewatermarsh #lotr #lordoftherings #hobbit #middleearth #fantasy #nature #naturalhistory #unnaturalhistory #entomology #cricket #orthoptera #gryllidae #gryllotalpidae #gryllotalpa #handdrawn #sketch
Where to next?
At our panel at this year’s British Society for Literature and Science Conference we announced our outreach survey which we will shortly re-launch, and we are hoping to further share our insights into coordinating cross-disciplinary public engagement in more organised form. I will shortly be writing a blog on this topic for the British Society for History of Science, so please be in touch – we would like to take into account as much feedback as possible! As to further destinations of our exhibition, stay tuned, and if you’d like us to travel your way, please get in touch!
I will be giving several public talks this summer, ranging from Alice in Wonderland and asylums, to psychology in Victorian fantastic literature, the psychology and sociology of recently rediscovered Arts and Crafts objects, insect metamorphoses and morality tales for children, and Automata, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Frankenstein. If you’re nearby, come and say hi!
- “‘More than a figment of scientific fancy’: Redefining the Victorian fantastic through the history of science”, Scholars’ Forum on Literature and the History of Science, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, 29 June.
- ‘Alice in Psychology-land: Dreams, Asylums and Fantasy’, Alice’s Day, Bodleian Library Oxford, Alice’s Day & Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth Exhibition, 7 July.
- ‘A bug-hunt in Wonderland: the symbolism and science of Alice’s insects and their transformations’, with Christopher Jeffs, ‘Insects Through the Looking Glass‘ Exhibition & Alice’s Day, Story Museum, Oxford, 7 July.
- ‘Pattern, Ecology and the Fantastic Imagination of George MacDonald and William Morris’, British Association for Victorian Studies Conference, University of Exeter, 29-31st August.
- ‘A Common Denominator: Reassessing the Carroll-MacDonald friendship through their science’, Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald: An Influential Friendship, Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy, 1 September.
- ‘A Machine as wonderful and complex as Man: Automata in Literature and Culture’, ‘Marvellous Mechanical Museum‘ Exhibition, Compton Verney, 9 September.
- ‘Alice’s Adventures in Oxfordshire: How Oxford inspired the Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland’, Abingdon Arms, Beckley, 25 November.
If you fancy reading more from me, essays of mine will appear in the Journal Of Scottish Thought as well as the exhibition catalogue of the Marvellous Mechanical Museum Exhibition. Don’t miss the Insects Through the Looking-Glass Exhibition at The Story Museum which runs throughout the Royal Entomological Society’s National Insect Week until Alice’s Day!
With support from the Royal Entomological Society you’ll be able to discover the world of literary insects, from mythology to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland novels, Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and M.G. Leonard’s Beetle Boy trilogy at Oxford’s Story Museum this summer! The exhibition will be on throughout National Insect Week to Oxford’s annual Alice’s Day, and run parallel to the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth exhibition at the Bodleian Library.
You’ll be able to delve into the history of entomology and the creation of the characters of some of your favourite children’s books, and discover how much we learn about the true biology of insects from them in interactive exhibits supported by the British Society for the History of Science, who have generously awarded us with their Outreach Grant. The exhibition will not only feature real Looking-Glass Insects, but will also be accompanied by numerous events – from live insect handling to school & illustration workshops, and readings my M.G. Leonard herself – as well as a museum trail. On the 23th of June, Dimitra Fimi will talk about J.R.R. Tolkien’s Insects in a lecture entitled ‘Wings, Antennae, and Stings: Tolkien’s Creepy Crawlies’. On the 7th of July – Alice’s Day, and the final day of the exhibition before the Museum closes for refurbishment – there will be a talk entitled ‘A bug-hunt in Wonderland: the symbolism and science of Alice’s insects and their transformations’ by the curators Chris Jeffs & Franziska Kohlt.
List of events:
- Battle of the Beetles reading with M.G. Leonard, 16 June
- The Travelling Insectarium, 17 June
- Draw-along Bug Talk with Carim Nahaboo, 17 June (11:30, 13;30)
- Talk by Dimitra Fimi ‘Wings, Antennae, and Stings: Tolkien’s Creepy Crawlies‘, 23rd of June (complementing also the ‘Tolkien: Maker of Worlds‘ exhibition at the Bodleian Library)
- Talk by Franziska Kohlt & Chris Jeffs (Curators) ‘A bug-hunt in Wonderland: the symbolism and science of Alice’s insects and their transformations’, 7 July, (to finish off Oxford’s Alice’s Day)
For the academic side of our project, we will be presenting a panel on Cross-Disciplinary Public Engagement at the Annual Conference of the British Society for Literature and Science (Panel 8B). We will shine a light the different sides of a cross-disciplinary collaboration in a panel discussion with Christopher Jeffs (University of Oxford), research scientist at the Department of Zoology, Luke Tilley (Royal Entomological Society), Deputy CEO and Director of Outreach, Katherine Ford, Science Museum London/ University of Sheffield Libraries Engagement, and Maya Leonard, author of ‘Beetle Boy’ trilogy and ‘Beetle Collectors Handbook’.
To create a future resource for future science communicators and everyone more widely involved in outreach and engagement on the intersections between the sciences and the humanities, we will be conducting a survey on how to create a successful cross-disciplinary outreach event – do participate & share widely!