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Science Fiction of the Past

Posted on July 30, 2015

Victorian science fictionA new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History investigates the scientific breakthroughs of the nineteenth century—and how they were turned into colorful fiction. Opened this summer and running through October 2016, “Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction 1780–1910,” looks at how authors and artists from the past imagined the future, with fantastical conceptions of traveling to the moon, the center of the earth, and into new worlds.

Showcased in the newly renovated Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition Gallery, the show covers a period of unprecedented exploration—across the Arctic and Africa, into the ocean and up in the air—that opened up artists' senses of possibility.

“So many things happened that we now take for granted, but at the time those things were marvels,” says Kirsten van der Veer, co-curator of the exhibit.

Items from the library’s collection, including original works by L. Frank Baum, Jules Verne, and Mary Shelley, reflect how creative minds of the era strove to understand their fast-changing world. These stories, reports, and in some cases hoaxes, found an especially engaged audience among the Victorians.

“The public became interested in science,” says van der Veer, pointing to changes like new transportation and postal systems, a higher degree of literacy and more leisure time for the middle classes. These created a hunger for new ideas, whether based on verified fact or delightful fiction.

Read the story in Rhapsody.

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