This post was written by Kirsten van der Veen, co-curator of “Fantastic Worlds.”
When the west wing of the National Museum of American History reopens today, July 1, after extensive renovations, a new Smithsonian Libraries exhibition will be opening with it: Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction, 1780-1910. It will be the first exhibition to debut in the newly refurbished Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition Gallery. On display will be some of the very works that exposed an eager and curious public to the wealth of new ideas and inventions of the 19th century (landmarks of scientific discovery, imaginative fictions, popular science, newspaper hoaxes, dime novels, and more). Showcased alongside selected historical artifacts from Smithsonian museum collections, the books on exhibition will trace the impact of the period’s science on the world of fiction.
The years between 1780 and 1910 saw major inventions and achievements in engineering: railways, the telegraph, and the precursor to the modern computer. Western explorers were reaching the last uncharted corners of the earth, and new ideas about mankind, the history of the planet and the heavens above were emerging. New frontiers of discovery appeared, as certain scientific disciplines came into their own, such as geology and the study of the deep sea. Experiment, invention, and discovery were hallmarks of the era, and altered forever how we live, and how we see ourselves and the world around us.
The public followed these scientific and technological developments with an unprecedented level of interest. These often astonishing discoveries and inventions found their way into fantastic fictional worlds, as writers creatively explored the further reaches of the new scientific landscape, using imagination to craft hoaxes, satires, and fictional tales.
The mid-19th century saw a revolution in communication no less dramatic than the internet today. Mechanization of printing and paper manufacture, increasing literacy, illustrated news weeklies, and postal systems changed how information was acquired and shared. Print was more plentiful and accessible than ever. The rapid invention and scientific discovery that characterized the age fascinated the public. The growing literate middle class read about and debated new ideas and attended demonstrations, lectures, and exhibitions. Science had a new and avid public audience.
This era is a rich one to pursue, and the Smithsonian Libraries’ varied and extensive 19th century collections have some real gems, both fact and fiction, full of captivating imagery, and with stories to tell. We chose to focus on certain themes that have had a lingering afterlife in fiction, exploring the scientific backstory of 19th century lost world fictions, fantastic airships, alien life on other worlds, mechanical men, and adventures both undersea and underground – all of which still feature in science fiction today. The exhibition draws from a wide variety of scientific subjects, including Arctic and African exploration, aeronautics, astronomy, electricity, oceanography, geology and many more, well represented in the Libraries’ collections.
By examining the intersection of scientific fact with fiction, we hope to bridge the gap between disciplines too often considered independent of one another. This summer, travel with us to the surface of the moon, the center of the earth, and the depths of the ocean, to the fantastic imagined worlds described vividly in the fictions the era and its innovation inspired.
Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction, 1780-1910 is currently on view in the Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition Gallery in the National Museum of American History. To plan your visit, see the exhibition’s webpage for additional details.