Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

Exhibition Themes

"At the heart of the Frankenstein exhibition is the question of what it means to be human and to be a part of the human community."--Susan E. Lederer, curator

  1. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus raises many critical humanities questions: What is the nature of being "human"? How important are our connections with other living beings? What are society's and individuals' responsibilities to members of the human community?

  2. In writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was inspired by the dramatic social, scientific, and economic changes occurring in the world during her lifetime. She had strong philosophical connections to the Romantic movement through her association with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and their wide circle of colleagues and friends. Although Frankenstein has roots in the Gothic genre, which in turn has its roots in Romanticism, Mary Shelley adapted the Gothic as a subversive means of attacking the status quo and transformed the genre.

  3. Mary Shelley's novel addresses the issue of individual and societal responsibility for other living beings by examining the role of science in civilization and culture. Shelley uses scientific exploration as a metaphor for examining broader cultural issues such the use and abuse of power and the consequences for the community.

  4. The public has both a fear and a fascination with the power of science, especially in the area of cloning and genetic engineering. There is a perception that these new forms of manipulating biological processes threaten the "natural boundaries" between human and artificial, life and death, nature and culture, and human and animal. The story of Frankenstein continues to be used as a framework with which to express the public's anxieties about these issues.

  5. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Mary Shelley's monster and her complex story of a quest for power, abandonment, and revenge, was transformed into a more simplistic narrative of ambition, punishment, and a scientist who has gone out of control. The monster evolved from a rational, self-taught, articulate creature into a speechless murderer, and then, through film, into the popular icon we know today. Through the centuries, the figure of the monster reflects the values, fears, and hopes of the culture and the time in which it appears.

  6. The exhibition addresses the issue of responsibility in the dissemination and use of knowledge and the importance of the public having informed opinions and choices. Scientists are responsible for sharing and explaining the results of their research, and the public is responsible for learning about contemporary science, so that they can participate more knowledgeably in current ethical and policy debates about biomedical advances. The roles of ethicists and other interpreters of scientific work, and the media are critical in informing the public.