Experimental Spaces

Codes of Experimenting and Experimental Spaces around 1900

Viola van Beek

Experiments as a scientific method and epistemological activity provided the basis for a variety of scientific disciplines in Germany around 1900; at the same time they were incorporated into the cultural and literary sphere. This project studied the emergence of material objects, texts, and settings that provided "codes" of experimenting and formed independent experimental spaces outside the laboratory. Part of this experimentalization of everyday life was the revitalization of genres like the experiment book, the widespread presence of experimental or avant-garde literature, the popularization of hands-on experiments in educational institutions like in the halls of the Urania in Berlin and—in particular—the outstanding concept of the experiment kit. These "instruction manuals" provided structures in which experiments took or could take place; as a result, they had their own agency in the process of experimenting and reflecting knowledge and were not mere records of, or, in case of the experiment kits’ boxes, containers for the experiment.

Experiment kits gained high popularity in the 1920s as playful objects for children. Being more than provisional setups at home these home laboratories explicitly connected to everyday things as objects of investigation and everyday knowledge as their framework of reference. Moreover, as portable laboratories chemistry sets, electricity kits, and physical cabinets, which had long before accompanied traveling scientists and intellectuals, had functioned as extensions of classrooms and lecture halls and had been available to dilettantes by means of trade and early forms of "mail order" catalogs. These objects consisting of a manual, instruments, and some supplementary contents arranged in a wooden, metal, or paper box highlight the opening and expansion of experimental spaces. Embedded in a certain framework and under the guidance of directions or narratives the experimental spaces created always refer back to and unlock the experimenting subject interacting with things. In this respect, being playful objects these kits pointed to yet another interesting aspect overarching the project: How meaningful is the relationship between experiment and play?