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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

The illustrated title page from Mary Shelly (1797-1851) Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, London, 1831. On the left page is the monster lying naked in Frankenstein's laboratory as Frankenstein leaves through a doorway. On the right page is the title page for the book featuring a man and a woman standing in the doorway of a building. Courtesy Singer-Mendenhall Collection, Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
Mary Shelly (1797-1851) Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus London, 1831. Courtesy Singer-Mendenhall Collection, Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.

In 1816, an Englishwoman still in her teens, Mary Shelley, conceived the story of a scientist obsessed with creating life. Shelley's scientist, Victor Frankenstein, succeeds. But while Frankenstein's creature can think and feel, he is monstrous to the eye. Spurned by all, including Victor Frankenstein himself, the embittered creature turns into a savage killer.

In 1818, Shelley's story was published as Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. This story — both in the original novel and shaped into new forms, such as plays, films, and comics — has captivated people ever since, exposing hidden, sometimes barely conscious fears of science and technology. As scientists have gained new powers, the Frankenstein story remains, like a warning beacon, throwing its harsh, unsettling beam upon human efforts to penetrate the secrets of nature.

This exhibition looks at the world from which Mary Shelley came, at how popular culture has embraced the Frankenstein story, and at how Shelley's creation continues to illuminate the blurred, uncertain boundaries of what we consider "acceptable" science.


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