On Friday 16th November Woodstock Road was a hive of activity for “Victorian Light Night”, part of both the national Being Human Festival and Oxford’s own Christmas Light Festival. The Radcliffe Humanities building (known by many as the former Radcliffe Infirmary) became the canvas for a unique light and sound spectacular created by the Projection Studio in conjunction with the Diseases of Modern Life project and TORCH.
The looped five minute show transported audiences from the rolling green countryside to the mad dash of Victorian mechanisation with its attendant steam, symptoms, and stresses. From the invention of the telegraph to the cholera contagion, the rise of patent medicines to cure the ills of modern life to the overcrowding of previously peaceful seaside resorts, ‘Victorian Speed of Life’ was a whirlwind tour of the many difficulties facing our ancestors.
In St Luke’s Chapel visitors played two research-informed card games: Dr Sally Frampton’s Mind-Boggling Medical Histories and Dan Holloway’s Mycelium. There was also a projection of work by students from Cheney School. Members of the Diseases of Modern Life team had previously been into Cheney School to present ideas about Victorian communication technologies and how the nineteenth century saw radical changes in the ways that people got around (the railways) and transmitted their thoughts and feelings (the invention of the penny post, the telegraph). In discussion, we thought about how these developments might be mirrored in modern-day use of such things as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Skype. The Cheney students produced artistic responses to this presentation which ranged from poems, to pictures, to a song and even a 3D model of a Victorian zoetrope with a modern twist!
We also presented prizes to the winners of the projection competition, whose designs based on the ‘speed of life’ were projected onto the building by The Projection Studio. Seeing your artwork on the front of a three-floor building is quite the honour!
Inside the Mathematical Institute, we had a whole host of different activities and a series of flash talks offering an insight into the variety of research happening on the project. Members of the public also enjoyed creating their own weird Victorian Christmas card, following the strange trend for bizarre images – such as a frog dancing with a beetle, or a stone-dead robin – gracing the the front of Victorian festive post.
The evening wasn’t just about light shows, talks and activities though… In a collaboration with science troubadour Jonny Berliner, Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown and David Pirie danced to a song about Dr Taylor-Brown’s research.
‘The Stomach is the Monarch’ is a song and dance performance inspired by Victorian understandings of digestive health. Does being hungry make you grumpy? Have you ever said “you’re so cute I could eat you up?” Modern science is proving that our stomachs and minds are inexplicably intertwined, but the Victorians got there first!
Dancing the lindy hop, Emilie and David drew huge crowds of gastric health and history of science enthusiasts (and maybe just a few Strictly Come Dancing fans) as they brought research to life.
Throughout the evening, visitors enjoyed carefully curating an outfit from an array of props in order to have a photo taken at the Victorian Photo Booth, enthusiastically run by Decadent Times. After a long evening of engaging with the public, we let our beaver buddy – the mascot of St Anne’s College – fulfill her dream of wearing a top hat.
Thank you so much to everyone who came out to Victorian Light Night – we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!