PhD Oral Exam - Alison Reiko Loader, Communication
When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.
Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.
Histories of old media generally locate women on view and in the audience, but rarely position them as owners or operators in control of a screen. An archival study of the forgotten founding of Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura by Maria Theresa Short addresses this shortcoming and explores a device that is itself marginalized by media scholarship. Whereas most accounts abstract the camera obscura as a teleological forerunner and foundational component of inscriptive optical media, or as a metaphor of disembodied and distantiated vision, they overlook its use as a nineteenth-century screen-based exhibition apparatus, especially in connection to women and scientific spectacles. Yet one of the foremost and oldest purpose-built attractions in Edinburgh boasts an extraordinary history that speaks directly to such absences. In a towertop walk-in optical device, spectators stand in the dark around a touchable tabular projection screen while operators manipulate the capture of a live, vivid and moving image of the city, which they present as a virtual guided tour. My research, pursued from a perspective of media studies, explores how an unknown but willful spinster came to display this splendid apparatus and exhibit “the sublime truths of science” before the mid-nineteenth-century emergence of public museums and in defiance of municipal leaders, who would see to the demolition of her first venture. It comprises an in-depth inspection of Scottish archives that details the tactics, tensions and controversies surrounding the mysterious Miss Short and her popular observatories, and uncovers a history of scientific ambition and struggle that helps illustrate the culture in which they operated. Like the optical devices it investigates, “Willful Spectacles” reveals a complex and miniaturized monad that stands in for a shifting world where public space, its views and viewers were gendered, classed, and open to contestation.