Temporary exhibitions and their consequences: On Growth and Form 1951 and the beginnings of the "public understanding of science" at the Festival of Britain


This paper considers the implications of temporary exhibitions during the post-war period and in the context of the Festival of Britain 1951 on the emergence of a new kind of knowledge that becomes described, only a few years later, and still today, as the ‘public understanding of science’. [1] We draw on the idea outlined recently by Ken Arnold, Head of Exhibitions at the Welcome Collection in London, that much of the attention to the epistemological consequences of display has tended to focus on museums and their histories rather than those of temporary exhibitions.
Looking at examples of science’s public images at the Festival via examples of science but also art and design display, the paper pays close attention to the ICA exhibition On Growth and Form 1951 in which scientific imagery became re-presented as avant-garde art. The photographs on display in the show referenced new imaging techniques as well as styles of illustration and visualization from D’Arcy Thompson’s seminal On Growth and Form where Thompson argued for a ‘materialist’ vision of growth in nature as well as artifice. Of particular importance to the connections between this early exhibition and the emergence of the public understanding of science genre is the symposium that accompanied the show and in which participated scientists as well as art historians, among others C.H. Waddington, R. Arnheim, H. Read and which was edited by L.L. Whyte under the title Aspects of Form. Both Whyte’s and Waddington’s roles are explored in relation to the early history of the public understanding of science in the post-war period, as far as both their writings, intellectual context as well as reception of their work is concerned, casting some light on post 1950s episodes in the public meanings of science as constituted by display and often not only the display of science but art and design as well.

Prime Hype DF 2016 EP

Assimina Kaniari
Maria Rentetzi