S2 Episode 1 – Fingerprinting Ghosts: Science, Technology & the Occult with The Media of Mediumship Project Team

a composite image of portraits of Professor Christine Ferguson, Dr Efram Sera-Shriar and Dr Emma Merkling

The Media of Mediumship project is running jointly at the University of Stirling and the Science Museum Group. The project team comprises Principal Investigator Professor Christine Ferguson, Co-Investigator Dr Efram Sera-Shriar and Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Emma Merkling.

In this very spooky episode, Christine, Efram and Emma tell us how from the late-Victorian era, novel technologies of the period – including photographic cameras, radio transmitters and devices for producing and recording different types of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays – were used to explore what we now think of as the ‘supernatural’. The team show that during this period, phenonema such as the ability of a medium to channel the spirits of the dead, or the physical manifestations of this ability such as the production of ectoplasm, were open to scientific debate, having not yet fallen outside the boundaries of legitimate scientific study. Similarly, what phenomena it was possible for novel technologies such as radio and photography to record or capture was not yet settled. Spiritualists, occultists, scientists, as well as magicians and outright con-artists (with more than one of these labels often applying to the same individual) used these novel technologies variously to evidence or debunk various claims, draw boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate scientific and spiritualist or occult practises, whilst also satisfying a Victorian public for whom attending a séance, for example, was a popular form of entertainment. The team discuss this fascinating history with reference to some of the technological artefacts and other objects of the period, which are held by the Science Museum Group and Senate House Library, and which were implicated in some of the most high-profile contemporary controversies e.g. the Cottingley fairies.

(This episode was recorded in Ocotber 2021)

This podcast is 52 minutes and 07 seconds long.

The keywords associated with this podcast are:

  • Spiritualism
  • Occultism
  • Mediumship
  • Interpretive Flexibility
  • Scientific Controversy
  • Boundary Work

To learn more about late-Victorian Spiritualism and the Occult, we recommend that you check out:

This online lecture: Taggart, S (2021) ‘Spiritualism, Photography and the Search for Ectoplasm’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWr_4I8Gvw4

This blog series: Popular Occulture in Britain, 1875-1947, https://popocculture.stir.ac.uk/

This installation: ‘The Laboratory of Psychic Science’, Senate House Library, London, WC1E 7HE https://beinghumanfestival.org/events/laboratory-psychic-science

For more information on the settling of scientific controversies and the ‘experimenters regress’, see:

This book: Collins, H. M. (1985/92) Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice. (2nd ed). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

For more on Boundary Work, see:

This article: Gieryn, T.F., 1983. ‘Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists’. American Sociological Review, 48(6): 781-795.