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The politics of participation: Francis Galton's Anthropometric Laboratory and the making of civic selves

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2011

Department of History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University, Box 629, S-751 26 Uppsala, Sweden. Email:


Historians have given much attention to museums and exhibitions as sites for the production and communication of knowledge in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But few studies have analysed how the activity and participation of visitors was designed and promoted at such locations. Using Francis Galton's Anthropometric Laboratory at the International Health Exhibition in London 1884 as the empirical focal point, this paper explores a new mode of involving exhibition audiences in the late nineteenth century. Its particular form of address is characterized by an ambition to transform the visitors' self-understanding by engaging them with various techniques of scientific observation and representation of social issues. By analysing the didactics of this particular project, I argue that the observational ideal of ‘mechanical objectivity’ and associated modes of representation in this instance became an integrated part of a political vision of self-observation and self-reformation. Thus the exhibit and related projects by Galton not only underpinned a theoretical lesson, but also were part of an effort to extend a complex set of practices among the general public.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2011 

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1 For a discussion of the ‘tidal wave’ of scholarship since the early 1990s on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century museums and exhibitions, see Starn, Randolph, ‘A historian's brief guide to new museum studies’, American Historical Review (2005) 110, pp. 6898, 68CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Kriegel, Lara, ‘After the exhibitionary complex: museum histories and the future of the Victorian past’, Victorian Studies (2006) 48, pp. 681704CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A classic collection of analyses of the politics of representation in science exhibits is Macdonald, Sharon (ed.), The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture, London: Routledge, 1998Google Scholar. On visitors see Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, ‘Studying visitors’, in Sharon Macdonald (ed.), A Companion to Museum Studies, Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006, pp. 362–376.

2 See, for example, Bennett, Tony, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, London: Routledge, 1995Google Scholar; Duncan, Carol, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, London: Routledge, 1995Google Scholar; van Wesemael, Pieter, Architecture of Instruction and Delight: A Socio-historical Analysis of World Exhibitions as a Didactic Phenomenon (1798–1851–1970), Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2001Google Scholar.

3 On early examples of interactive designs see, for example, Morus, Iwan Rhys, Frankenstein's Children: Electricity, Exhibition and Experiment in Early-Nineteenth-Century London, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998Google Scholar; Griffiths, Alison, ‘“They go to see a show”: vicissitudes of spectating and the anxiety over the machine in the nineteenth-century science museum’, Early Popular Visual Culture (2006) 4, pp. 245271CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On visitors' interpretations see Alberti, Samuel, ‘Objects and the museum’, Isis (2005) 96, pp. 559571CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For discussions on how to historicize ‘popular science’ see Topham, Jonathan, ‘Introduction’, Isis (2009) 100, pp. 310318CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Frans Lundgren, ‘Civic media: city exhibitions and the visual culture of community, c. 1900’, in Anders Ekström et al. (eds.), History of Participatory Media: Politics and Publics, 1750–2000, London: Routledge, 2010. A history of the ‘social museum’ is not yet written; compare Van Wesemael, op. cit. (2), p. 673, as the scholarship on exhibits of hygiene, demography and social economy and so on have been pursued from other perspectives. Some recent examples are Brown, Julie, Health and Medicine on Display: International Expositions in the United States, 1876–1904, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kraeutler, Hadwig, Otto Neurath: Museum and Exhibition Work: Spaces Designed for Communication, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2008Google Scholar; Michelle Lamunière, ‘Sentiment and science: Francis Greenwood Peabody and social reform photography in Harvard's Social Museum’, PhD thesis, Boston University, 2009.

5 The politics of observatory competences or modes of spectatorship among the general public has a broad and long history; see e.g. Shaya, Gregory, ‘The flâneur, the badaud, and the making of a mass public in France, circa 1860–1910’, American Historical Review (2004) 109, pp. 4177CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ekström, Anders, ‘Seeing from above: a particular history of the general observer’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts (2009) 31, pp. 185207CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 The literature on Galton's work is dominated by more or less celebratory biographies, and much dependant on Pearson's, Karl tribute, The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, 3 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914–30Google Scholar. Pearson included much material on Galton's public anthropometric activities and although they have not been the subject of studies they are often mentioned in the literature. On the historiography see M. Eileen Magnello, ‘Galton, Francis’, in Arne Hessenbruch (ed.), Reader's Guide to the History of Science, London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000; Comfort, Nathaniel, ‘Zelig: Francis Galton's reputation in biography’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (2006) 80, pp. 348363CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Pearson, op. cit. (6), vol. 2, p. 357. Pearson emphasized the importance: ‘One quakes to think of what might have happened had Galton not obtained through that first anthropometric laboratory and his family records the data he needed!’ The significance has been repeated many times in the literature; see Porter, Theodore, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 286296Google Scholar; Hacking, Ian, The Taming of Chance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Chapter 21.

8 Public manifestations of anthropometry have been given little scholarly attention; examples can be found in David K. van Keuren, ‘Human science in Victorian Britain: anthropology in institutional and disciplinary formation, 1863–1908’, PhD thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1982; Zimmerman, Andrew, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Chapter 6. On popular eugenics see Currell, Susan and Cogdell, Christina (eds.), Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006Google Scholar. Galton's framing of reproductive responsibilities in early eugenics is discussed Kevles, Daniel, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, New York: Knopf, 1985Google Scholar, Chapter 1.

9 This project is mentioned in Rydell, Robert, World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993Google Scholar, Chapter 4.

10 Steven Shapin, ‘Science and the public’, in Robert C. Olby et al. (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science, London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 991 and 1005–1006. For an analysis of Galton in this context see Waller, John, ‘Gentlemanly men of science: Sir Francis Galton and the professionalisation of the British life-sciences’, Journal of the History of Biology (2001) 34, pp. 83114CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 While much attention has been given to the interdependence of nineteenth- and twentieth-century social science and the political sphere, few studies have yet explored how ‘the general public’ or actual publics were addressed or involved in processes of authority or legitimacy. In the most comprehensive modern handbook, social science on the one hand and ‘public and private life’ on the other are described less as intersecting entities than as separate spheres, connected through the discourse of experts, managers and politicians. See essays in Part IV of Porter, Theodore and Ross, Dorothy (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 7: The Modern Social Sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003Google Scholar. The potential of not making a strict distinction between the production and communication of knowledge is discussed in Secord, James, ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis (2004) 95, pp. 654672CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

12 ‘Social science’ was a wide-ranging term, often including all areas of knowledge that had bearing on ‘social problems’ or ‘the social question’: see Goldman, Lawrence, Science, Reform, and Politics in Victorian Britain: The Social Science Association, 1857–1886, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The health exhibition's executive council was thus summed up as ‘sanitary engineers, medical men, and professors of social science’, Sala, G.A., ‘The Health Exhibition: a look around’, Illustrated London News (1884) 85, p. 91Google Scholar.

13 The Health Exhibition is rarely mentioned in the literature on the great exhibitions of the nineteenth century, and the most extensive analysis is Amy Ruth Partridge, ‘Public health for the people: the use of exhibition and performance to stage the “sanitary idea” in Victorian Britain’, PhD thesis, Northwestern University, 2005, Chapters 1 and 2.

14 International Health Exhibition, 1884, South Kensington’, British Medical Journal, 17 May 1884, pp. 968969Google Scholar.

15 The Lancet, 8 November 1884, p. 833.

16 Hart, E., ‘Abstract of a lecture on the International Health Exhibition of 1884: its influence and possible sequels’, British Medical Journal, 6 December 1884CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 H.W.A[cland], ‘Preface’, in Health Exhibition Literature, vol. 1: Health in the Dwelling, London, 1884.

18 The tension is emphasized in much of the literature and Peter Greenhalgh has specifically claimed that it characterized these thematic exhibitions at South Kensington of the 1880s in ‘Education, entertainment and politics: lessons from the great international exhibitions’, in Vergo, Peter (ed.), The New Museology: Critical Views, London: Reaktion, 1989, pp. 7498Google Scholar.

19 See, for example, The Lancet, 17 May 1884, p. 911; 31 May 1884, p. 997; 6 September 1884, p. 414; 8 November 1884, p. 833; Sala, op. cit. (12), p. 91.

20 Sala, op. cit. (12), p. 91. The Lancet described the purpose as ‘to arouse the public mind to the important matter … and … to assist the sanitary authorities of the country in the discharge of duties which can only be adequately performed with the cheerful co-operation of the masses’. The Lancet, 10 May 1884, p. 853.

21 Hart, , op. cit. (16), p. v. Compare also The Lancet, 8 November 1884, p. 833Google Scholar.

22 For recent studies of the ideology and pedagogy of the 1851 exhibition see Buzard, James et al. (eds.), Victorian Prism: Refractions of the Crystal Palace, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007Google Scholar; on the difficulties of the epistemological project see Richard Bellon, ‘Science at the crystal focus of the world’, in Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman (eds.), Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007. Criticism of displays of activity, turning exhibitions into popular shows rather than object lessons, is discussed in Griffiths.

23 ‘International Health Exhibition’, op. cit. (14), pp. 968–969; Hart, op. cit. (16).

24 The aim to bridge any lack of formal education was explicitly expressed. Displays were designed ‘so that those who walk may see’ – a standard phrase on the ability to produce popular appeal and intelligibility – and directly compared to the construction of working laboratories on-site. ‘International Health Exhibition’, op. cit. (14), 968. The motto is discussed in Bennett, Tony, Pasts beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 9798Google Scholar. Professional publics were also encouraged to see for themselves at the exhibition. The Lancet argued that ‘all competent to observe’ would be given proof of the new bacteriological theories, and provided illustrations of specimens and apparatus, as a ‘catalogue de luxe to the Biological Laboratory’ for the use of ‘busy practitioners’. See The Lancet, 5 July 1884, p. 24; and 9 August 1884, p. 251.

25 Punch, 16 August 1884, pp. 82–83. See also ‘Guide to sanitary and insanitary houses’, in Health Exhibition Literature, vol. 19: Miscellaneous, Including Papers on China, London, 1884; ‘The Health Exhibition: the sanitary and unsanitary houses’, The Lancet, 16 August 1884, p. 297.

26 See, for example, Punch, 15 December 1883, p. 288; 17 May 1884, p. 235; 28 June 1884, p. 309; 23 August 1884, p. 89.

27 Galton, Francis, ‘On the Anthropometric Laboratory at the late International Health Exhibition’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1885) 14, pp. 205218CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Galton, Francis, Anthropometric Laboratory, London, 1884Google Scholar.

29 Galton, op. cit. (27), p. 206.

30 Galton's collection of his previous work in Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, London: J.M. Dent, 1883Google Scholar, and his public anthropometric initiatives at this time were a culmination of his work in this area.

31 Already in his first programmatic eugenic text, although the term itself was introduced ten years later, Galton discussed the necessity of producing anthropometric knowledge and the need to make this knowledge part of public discourse. Galton, Francis, ‘Hereditary improvement’, Fraser's Magazine (1873) 7, pp. 116130, 121125Google Scholar.

32 Final report of the Anthropometric Committee’, Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1883) 53, pp. 253306Google Scholar, in particular 253, 275 and 300. The committee is described by Van Keuren, op. cit. (8), p. 122, as ‘a continuation of Galton's own researches, and his influence upon it is unmistakable’.

33 In his instructions at the laboratory, the results of the committee are criticized: It ‘took great pains to collect available data for [statistical] inquiries of this kind, but their returns were by no way adequate to solve even the more important national questions’. Galton, op. cit. (28), p. 4.

34 He discusses lifelong commitments on many occasions in the early 1880s; see, for example, Report of the Anthropometric Committee’, Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1881) 51, pp. 225272, 249Google Scholar. The goal in the conclusion of Inquiries, Galton, op. cit. (30), pp. 236–237, is to make it popular to keep life histories and to bring about ‘an alteration in our mental attitude, … a new moral duty’.

35 Galton, Francis, ‘Some results of the Anthropometric Laboratory’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1885) 14, pp. 275287, 278CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Penelope, , ‘Our ladies’ column’, Preston Chronicle and Lancashire Advertiser, 18 October 1884Google Scholar; anon., ‘Local and general’, Leeds Mercury, 31 May 1884.

37 Galton, op. cit. (27), pp. 206–207.

38 Galton, op. cit. (28), p. 6.

39 Galton, Francis, ‘Why do we measure mankind?’, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine (1890) 45, pp. 236241, 236Google Scholar. Although the procedure was anonymous, the first particulars on the form were filled in behind a screen to avoid ‘annoying’ the participants. Galton, op. cit. (27), p. 214.

40 Galton, op. cit. (28), p. 5.

41 The making of ‘statistical community’ is discussed in Michaels, Walter Benn, ‘An American tragedy, or the promise of American life’, Representations (1989) 25, pp. 7195, 8387CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Galton, op. cit. (27), p. 212, see also 207.

43 Galton, Francis, ‘Measurement of character’, Fortnightly Review (1884) 36, pp. 179185, 185Google Scholar.

44 The goal of collecting ‘life-histories’ in the form of ‘adequate photographs, anthropometric measurements, and medical facts’ is stated in the first presentation of the idea of anthropometric laboratories. Galton, Francis, ‘The Anthropometric Laboratory’, Fortnightly Review (1882) 31, pp. 332338, 338Google Scholar.

45 The connection between popular medical registers and composite photography is also discussed in Galton, Francis, ‘Photographic chronicles from childhood to age’, Fortnightly Review (1882) 31, pp. 2631, 2629Google Scholar.

46 (Galton, Francis), Life History Album: Prepared by Direction of the Collective Investigation Committee of the British Medical Association, London: Macmillan, 1884CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 (Galton), Francis, Record of Family Faculties, Consisting of Tabular Forms and Directions for Entering Data, with an Explanatory Preface, London: Macmillan, 1884CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Galton, Francis, ‘Medical family registers’, Fortnightly Review (1883) 34, pp. 244250, 248Google Scholar.

49 Galton, Francis, ‘Mr. Francis Galton's proposed “family registers”’, Science (1884) 3, p. 3CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

50 The study of heredity’, Science (1884) 3, pp. 734 ffGoogle Scholar.

51 The Times, 9 January 1884. In the opinion of another reviewer, the project had ‘excited the interest of many persons who do not often take the trouble to master even popular science’. ‘Topics of the week’, The Graphic, 12 January 1884.

52 Summary of the week: domestic’, Manchester Weekly Times, 29 September 1883Google Scholar.

53 British calibre gauged’, North Wales Chronicle, 29 September 1883Google Scholar.

54 Our London correspondence’, Liverpool Mercury, 3 December 1878Google Scholar.

55 Galton, op. cit. (44), p. 332.

56 Francis Galton, Rede Lecture, fragment of MS 39, Francis Galton papers, Special Collections, University College London (subsequently GP), 137/5, underlining in original.

57 The most important contributions to a historical analysis of composite photography are still Green, David, ‘Veins of resemblance: photography and eugenics’, Oxford Art Journal (1984) 7, pp. 316CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Sekula, Alan, ‘The body and the archive’, October (1986) 39, pp. 364CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 Ginzburg, Carlo, ‘Family resemblances and family trees: two cognitive metaphors’, Critical Inquiry (2004) 30, pp. 537556CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 Galton gave some credit for the conception of the method to Herbert Spencer, in what could be described as part of the initial efforts to claim legitimacy for the technique. Galton, Francis, Address to the Anthropological Department of the British Association, Plymouth, 1877, London: W. Clowes, 1877, p. 10Google Scholar.

60 On the selection of ‘representative specimens’ in the subcommittee formed for the task, with Galton as a member, see Report of sub-committee [of the Anthropometric Committee] to deal with that portion of the reference to them that relates to publication of photographs of typical races of empire’, Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1878) 48, pp. 155156Google Scholar, where Galton's new method is cited. Compare also Fox, A. Lane, ‘Anthropometric Committee’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1878) 7, pp. 391393, 393CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an analysis of the committee's gathering of photographic evidence see Rosalyn Poignant, ‘Surveying the field of view: the making of the RAI photographic collection’, in Elizabeth Edwards (ed.), Anthropology and Photography 1860–1920, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 42–73, esp. pp. 58–61.

61 Galton's first publication on the potential of photographic composites was in 1877, op. cit. (59), and he continued the discussion over several articles. See e.g. Galton, Francis, ‘Composite portraits, made by combining those of many different persons into a single resultant figure’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1879) 8, pp. 132144CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 Galton, Francis, ‘Generic images’, Proceedings of the Royal Institution (1879) 9, pp. 161170, 169Google Scholar.

63 Galton, op. cit. (59), pp. 4–8. References to the ‘personal equation’ were made several times by the Anthropometric Committee; see, for example: ‘Our London correspondence’, Liverpool Mercury, op. cit. (54). For an analysis of the history of the personal equation see Schaffer, Simon, ‘Astronomers mark time: discipline and the personal equation’, Science in Context (1988) 2, pp. 115145CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 Galton, op. cit. (62), pp. 166–170, 169.

65 Composite photography was used as an example in Daston, Lorraine and Galison's, Peterseminal article ‘The image of objectivity’, Representations (1992) 40, pp. 81128CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 Daston, Lorraine and Galison, Peter, Objectivity, New York: Zone, 2007, p. 301Google Scholar.

67 There are similarities between the pedagogical mechanism present in the case of composite photography and Jonathan Crary's description of how the phenakistiscope and the zootrope – new scientific devices for studying vision also sold as optical toys in the 1830s – produced ‘an individual body that is at once a spectator, a subject of empirical research and observation’. Crary, Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990, p. 112Google Scholar.

68 Ginzburg, op. cit. (58), p. 546.

69 Galton, op. cit. (62), pp. 165–166.

70 Quote from Galton, op. cit. (61), p. 140. Several reviewers of Inquiries singled out the composites as an exemplary and popular statistical method; see e.g. Pall Mall Gazette, 18 June 1883; The Guardian, 4 July 1883; The Academy, 14 July 1883.

71 The most elaborate effort was the ‘circular letter’ to amateur photographers with an attached composite portrait. Francis, Galton, Application of Composite Portraiture to the Production of Ideal Family Likeness, London, 1882Google Scholar, [2]. A copy is in the GP, 158/2A, but the ambition is also expressed elsewhere. See, for example, Galton, Francis, ‘Composite portraiture’, Photographic News (1881) 25, pp. 316317, 332333, 316 and 333Google Scholar; idem, op. cit. (45), p. 26; idem, op. cit. (30), p. 13; idem, ‘Photographic composites’, Photographic News (1885) 29, pp. 234–245, 244.

72 See Pearson, op. cit. (6), vol. 2, Plate LI.

73 Galton, op. cit. (39), p. 240. The family register was designed to provide access to otherwise intangible phenomena through ‘synoptic views of the family’. Galton, op. cit. (47), p. 13.

74 Already in the pamphlet at the exhibition Galton inscribed the visitors' participation in a wider shift of cultural values: ‘The necessity of periodical measurement … has not yet obtained that hold on popular opinion which it deserves, and which it will hereafter undoubtedly exercise’. Galton, op. cit. (28), p. 4.

75 Danziger, Kurt, Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, especially pp. 5464CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 Cooter, Roger, The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984Google Scholar; John van Wyhe, ‘The diffusion of phrenology through public lecturing’, in Fyfe and Lightman, op. cit. (22), pp. 60–96.

77 Turner, Frank, ‘Public science in Britain, 1880–1919’, Isis (1980) 71, pp. 589608, 596–599Google Scholar.

78 Galton, op. cit. (31), p. 123.

79 Partridge, op. cit. (13), p. 139.

80 Daston and Galison, op. cit. (66), p. 246.