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  • A Science of Our Own: Exhibitions and the Rise of Australian Public Science by Peter H. Hoffenberg
  • Richard Fulton (bio)
A Science of Our Own: Exhibitions and the Rise of Australian Public Science
by Peter H. Hoffenberg; pp. vii + 196. U of Pittsburgh P, 2019. $45 cloth.

Few events fired a Victorian civic booster’s blood like a good local exhibition. Whether they were comprehensive international affairs such as the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations—the [End Page 328] 1853 Crystal Palace—focused events such as the 1883 International Fisheries Exhibition in London, colonial events such as the Melbourne International Exhibition (1883), or municipal events such as the Jubilee exhibitions in Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham (1887), all of them had in common a desire to astonish the local folks and, perhaps, the rest of the world with a cornucopia of things: machines, plants, minerals, animals, artifacts, art objects, cultural objects, even indigenous people. Sponsors of the fairs, exhibitions, and expositions professed many reasons for the events, but their overriding concerns were to promote the local municipality, provide a stage to exhibit local business and industry, and make money.

But what of the countries and colonies participating in these events, particularly the international expositions? How could they justify the expense of shipping an exhibit great distances—in the case of the Australian colonies, halfway around the world—for what purpose?

In A Science of Our Own: Exhibitions and the Rise of Australian Public Science, Peter Hoffenberg touches on the varied reasons that the isolated colonies of the Australian continent gave for participation, but the bottom line was invariably to boost their profile among the family of nations, which translated to enhanced familiarity, which translated to increased trade. We send samples of crops, minerals, and refined products, and our audience responds by buying quantities of our crops, minerals, and refined products. But more importantly, he focuses on a little-discussed aspect of exhibition culture: the place of science in the various exhibits. He contends that by emphasizing science in the public offerings at American, European, colonial, and local expositions, Australian scientists, in co-operation with Australian politicians, industrialists, business owners, and agriculturalists, created an Australian public science, what one Sydney public figure called “a science of our own” (7).

Hoffenberg examines the growth of Australian public science by first focusing on the many expositions at which the Australian colonies exhibited Australian things scientific: chronometers, timepieces, and scales at the Sydney International; stuffed animals, a compound microscope, and a recording anemometer at the 1886 Colonial and Indian; tree trunks, animal skins, and cases of valuable minerals at the 1873 Vienna International. Fossils, birds, fishes, trees, and coral were common natural history exhibits, as were the ever-popular “native weapons and implements of chase” (read “boomerangs”), in the sciences of man halls.

He then profiles the scientists from New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria who selected the exhibitions, judged at various fairs both in Australia and abroad, wrote the scientific papers that popularized science among their fellow citizens, and lobbied civic officials for support of Australian science generally: Ferdinand Mueller, Rev. W.B. Clarke, Joseph Bosisto, and dozens of others crucial to spreading an enthusiasm for science throughout the Australian colonies. He also examines the place of the indigenous Aborigines in the scientific enterprise, and makes it clear that, far from being dismissed [End Page 329] out of hand, the cultures of the indigenous peoples were carefully studied, artifacts were collected, and linguistic dictionaries were developed, all for international and colonial expositions.

Hoffenberg concludes that a study of Australian public science “suggests how both science and the public interest were connected and mutually transformative” (133). The various exhibitions, he argues, were key elements in the network that created a sense of scientific collaboration and intersection, and both professionalized and popularized science in the Australian culture. Thus, he says, the various exhibitions provided a venue through which Australians could reveal themselves to the world as well as to themselves.

Readers interested in nineteenth-century Australia will find A Science of Their Own a fascinating trip into a little-known aspect of national development. Readers interested in the...


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pp. 328-330
Launched on MUSE
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