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On the trail of 19th century science performers: the case of L. K. Maju

By Dulce da Rocha Gonçalves 

Science performers played a significant role in science communication during the nineteenth century: they performed live for different audiences, in a variety of settings, often hauling science and technology experiments and demonstrations throughout the territory. Some scientific performers used the live event of the stage performance as a way to communicate their own investigative endeavors, to promote their published works, or to boost their scientific reputation. Other performers were interested in science and technology as fruitful material for their entertaining and instructive performances. The latter was the case for Levie Kinsbergen Maju (1823-1886), a Dutch performer with a background in stage magic who reinvented himself as a science popularizer in the 1860s.

From the sensational ghost lecture of John Henry Pepper to Edison’s phonograph, and from illustrated astronomy lectures to the microscopic projection of the cholera bacillus, Maju delivered popular scientific performances across the Netherlands, but also outside of its borders, an occupation spanning several decades. However, publishing – an enterprise that creates documents that are so important for historical research – was not part of his activities: Maju did not issue any scientific treatises, nor popular science books, nor even his own memoir. Because he was first and foremost a performer, records of his practice are difficult to come about. 

Often, the only primary sources relating to these performers are to be found in historical newspapers: advertisements, perhaps a letter to the editor, and reports of their performances written by an attending journalist, or sometimes by a well-meaning member of the audience. With the currently ongoing digitalization of paper archives, historians have now enhanced access to the large body of information found in historical newspapers through keyword search. This presents a great opportunity to bring back from oblivion the 19th century science performers who, like Maju, left practically no other traces.

Indeed, if now Maju is all but forgotten, the nineteenth-century Dutch press tells a different story: by then, Maju was a current fixture of the lecture season in the winter, and of the open-air festivities season in the summer, performing across the country, from the metropolitan centers such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam to small villages from the north to the south of the Netherlands. Important to his scientific performances were also his connections with international organizations: his relationship to the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London was central to Maju’s engagement with spectacular science and technology, something he was always keen to advertise.

Note: for a better experience using the interactive map, please make use of the full screen option by clicking the icon in the bottom right corner of the map.

This interactive visualization displays information gathered from several online historical newspaper archives to demonstrate the temporal and spatial distribution of Maju’s performances, from his early magic and prestidigitation shows to his popular lectures on science and technology. While he was mostly active in the Netherlands, he also performed in the United Kingdom, notably his conjuring acts at the Royal Colosseum and at the Polytechnic in the early 1860s, but also later in 1881 at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, where he projected dissolving views in the garden. Maju also performed his repertoire of optical illusions, open-air performances and popular lectures in Belgium and in Germany. Besides performing in many different places, Maju also engaged with different stakeholders and institutional settings, from the fairground to the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences, navigating between expert and non-expert circles. His case is a token of the inclusive and extensive field that was science communication in the nineteenth century.

Read the original article on Public Understanding of Science.