PhD Student Vanessa Da Silva Baptista appointed as Freer Prize Fellow at the Royal Institution

20 January 2023

Congratulations to UCL History PhD candidate Vanessa Da Silva Baptista, who was recently appointed as Freer Prize Fellow at the Royal Institution! We chatted to Vanessa about her PhD and her plans for the future.

Vanessa Baptista

Hi Vanessa, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. You were recently appointed as a Freer Prize Fellow at the Royal Institution – congratulations! Can you tell us about what this means to you?

I am really thrilled to have been awarded the Freer Prize Fellowship at the Royal Institution. I was fortunate enough to attend a Christmas lecture at the RI as a teenager and I have admired the RI’s dedication to the communication of science and the history of science and their focus on outreach and public engagement ever since.  I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to this very important work. 

You are currently completing a PhD at UCL History titled ‘A Cultural History of Magic Tricks in the Late Middle Ages’ – why did you decide to research this topic? 

While writing my MA thesis on illusionary magic, meaning the production visual illusions through magical means, I noticed that one of the manuscripts I was examining also contained instructions for small amusing tricks similar to modern day magic tricks. One of my favourites, for example, are tricks to make eggs and other objects move by attaching a fine hair to them or filling them with mercury. I was fascinated by the idea that 14th and 15th century people might want to create these small playful effects and wanted to know exactly who would have collected these types of instructions and why they might use them. 

Looking ahead, where would you like your research to take you next?

My research into magic tricks has sparked an interest in domestic craft and experimentation as recorded in medieval manuscript recipe collections. These collections may reveal how adept medieval people were at certain practical crafts, and how able they were to experiment and adapt processes and recipes to their needs and desires. I am particularly intrigued by recipes and instructions to produce amusing or beautiful effects, such as recipes for invisible or glowing ink, that use the same materials or processes as the more strictly utilitarian recipes that they are usually collected with. I’d love in particular to develop outreach and public engagement activities that reconstructed some of these recipes.