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Events to explore modern supernaturalism’s links to Britain’s science, technology and magic collections

A new programme of events will uncover how unorthodox spiritual believers and sceptics alike have used new technologies and scientific instruments, such as photography, wireless transmission, telegraphy and tape recorders, to test, affirm or debunk the existence of an unseen world.

The events form part of a project titled The Media of Mediumship: Encountering the Material Culture of Modern Occultism in Britain’s Science, Technology, and Magic Collections. The one-year project is a collaboration between the Science Museum Group, Senate House Library and the University of Stirling, with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The project aims to deliver original curatorial perspectives on collection materials whose occult histories of use have long been unknown or misunderstood. The events programme will focus on items from the Science Museum Group Collection in Bradford and London and the Senate House Library material from the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, whose archival materials detail specific technologies used by occultists and sceptics alike, from dictaphones to radiographs. These include objects from Price’s National Laboratory of Psychical Research, founded in 1926 to investigate alleged psychic phenomena.

The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford houses a remarkable collection of objects exploring the history of photography, film, television and sound, including objects with links to occultism. One such collection, which will form the focus of a talk by Professor Christine Ferguson, includes objects linked to the famous Cottingley Fairies, including the cameras gifted to Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Theosophist Edward Gardner. The museum also has a collection of spirit photography, including photography by the renowned 20th century medium William Hope, whose works will form the focus of a talk by Dr Efram Sera-Shriar.

Project leader Professor Christine Ferguson explains:

“Our programme demonstrates the prevailing desire of humans to put the ghost back in the machine, to enchant seemingly secular and rational forms of new technology as they emerge.

“In the 19th century, belief in spirits and fairies was sometimes seen as a throwback to an earlier, more superstitious, pre-modern time. But this interpretation failed to explain why so many spiritualists and occultists embraced new technologies as eager early adopters, deploying radios, cameras, recording devices, typewriters and the like, in their magical practice. We aim to tell both their story, and that of the scientific investigators and sceptics who used these same instruments to debunk the supernatural. Finally, we show how the entangled history of science and spiritualism continues to inspire the artistic imagination via an original sound art and performance commission by Aleks Kolkowski, kitt price and Laurence Cliffe, and a new horror radio series produced by Professor Richard Hand in collaboration with the National Edgar Allan Poe on the Air.”

Dr Efram Sera-Shriar argues:

“Far too often the material culture of occultism is missing from projects that engage the history of supernaturalism. The Media of Mediumship aims to address this gap by revealing the marginalised stories of how believers and sceptics alike used objects to engage supposed extraordinary phenomena. Not only will this help to enrich our understanding of STEM collections in Britain, but the planned programme of events will foster critical dialogues on important themes relating to human perception, illusions, optics, acoustics, and the standards of evidence in science investigations. Audiences who are unable to attend live events and performances will also have opportunities to explore our research through our digital platform. There is genuinely something for everyone.”

The first event will take place online on Wednesday 30 June 2021, where award-winning photographer Shannon Taggart will discuss ‘Spiritualism, Photography and the Search for Ectoplasm’. Taggart will explore the history of spirit photography and its influence on her own documentary work with the Lily Dale Spiritualist Assembly, recently published in her Fulgur Press book Séance.

It is hoped that the next event will be delivered live and in person on Thursday 30 September 2021 as part of the National Science and Media Museum’s regular Café Scientifique series. Professor Christine Ferguson, Chair in English Studies at the University of Stirling and Principal Investigator on the Media of Mediumship project, will discuss how the Cottingley Fairies story reveals the long-standing relationship between technological innovation and alternative spiritual belief in modern Britain.

The Science Museum Group’s Dr Efram Sera-Shriar, also Co-Investigator on the project, will be speaking at Café Scientifique on Thursday 27 January 2022, giving his reflections on William Hope and the Crewe Circle spirit photographs housed in the museum’s collection.

On Wednesday 24 November 2021, Emma Merkling of the Courtauld Institute of Art, who is Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the project, will deliver a talk as part of the Lates event series at the Science Museum in London, where she will uncover the occult histories of X-ray technology in Britain.

Project partners Ashton Carter Magic and Dr Nik Taylor will also be hosting a workshop on ghostly noises at Bradford Science Festival this October. As part of the project, Dr Taylor and Ashton Carter will also bring their theatrical experience Séance: A View Through the Veil to film for the first time in an online video to be released this August.

There will also be two radio specials released on Resonance FM and BBC Radio Suffolk in October, as well as an interactive app-based sound installation recreating the National Laboratory of Psychical Research established in 1926 by the celebrated psychic investigator Harry Price. The sound installation is accompanied by objects and artefacts inspired by the Magical Library of Harry Price held by Senate House Library. It will be held in the Court Room of Senate House as part of the Being Human Festival on 11–17 November 2021 (tickets available in September).  

Find details of the full programme of events on the Media of Mediumship events webpage.

For further information about the Media of Mediumship project, visit the project website and Science Museum Group project webpage.

Please note some events will be taking place online or at venues other than the National Science and Media Museum, so always check details in advance of booking.

ENDS

For further details or images please contact

Katie Canning, Press and PR Manager, National Science and Media Museum: katie.canning@scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk / 01274 203 027

Notes for editors

The Science Museum Group is the world’s leading group of science museums, welcoming over five million visitors each year to five sites: the Science Museum in London; the National Railway Museum in York; the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester; the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford; and Locomotion in Shildon.

We share the stories of innovations and people that shaped our world and are transforming the future, constantly reinterpreting our astonishingly diverse collection of 7.3 million items spanning science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Standout objects include the record-breaking locomotive Flying Scotsman, Richard Arkwright’s textile machinery, Alan Turing’s Pilot ACE computer and the earliest surviving recording of British television.

Our mission is to inspire futures, igniting curiosity among people of all ages and backgrounds. Each year, our museums attract more than 600,000 visits by education groups, while our touring exhibition programme brings our creativity and scholarship to audiences across the globe. More information can be found at the Science Museum Group website.

The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, West Yorkshire, opened in 1983, and has since become one of the most visited UK museums outside London. The museum explores the science and culture of image and sound technologies, creating special exhibitions, interactive galleries and activities for families and adults. It is home to three cinemas, including Europe’s first IMAX cinema screen and the world’s only public Cinerama screen outside the USA. Entry to the museum is free.

The Media of Mediumship project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and follows on from the Popular Occulture in Britain, 1875–1947 research network.

Part of the Science Museum Group