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Science Museum Group

‘The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter’

A “sense of excitement” defines the Science Museum’s new show ‘The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter,’ writes Jenny Uglow. “In the book that accompanies the show, far more than a catalog, the curators, Ian Blatchford and Tilly Blyth, lay out their stall. ‘Throughout history,’ they write, ‘artists and scientists alike have been driven by curiosity and the desire to explore worlds, inner and outer. They have wanted to make sense of what they see around them and feel within them: to observe, record and transform. Sometimes working closely together, they have taken inspiration from each other’s practice.’ To illustrate this dual heritage and point to the leaps of imagination in both fields, they have placed twenty works—painting, sculpture, film, photographs, posters, and textiles—alongside the scientific objects that inspired them. Thus A Lecture on the Orrery hangs near James Ferguson’s wooden pulley-operated mechanical model of the solar system, an orrery from the Museum’s collection.

The complex, sometimes conflictual, relationship of man and machine is a constant thread. Recalling how the mechanical telling of time itself became contested during the Industrial Revolution, as the historian E.P. Thompson described in a famous 1967 Past & Present article, ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,’ here is a handsome double-dialled clock from a Macclesfield mill, dating from 1810. In the catalog, the curators tell us that while the lower dial showed the actual time, the upper dial was connected to the silk mill’s waterwheel: if the waterwheel ran slowly, or stopped, ‘mill time’ was slowed or suspended, and the workers would have to make up the lost production time, ‘ruled by the pace of their machines.’ Similarly, a photographic sequence of a woman operating a hand press, using an ‘old’ and ‘new’ method, was taken as part of a British motion study in the 1920s1930s: the new method, using one stroke less, was said to increase productivity by 40 percent. Nearby, L.S. Lowry’s painting A Manufacturing Town (1922) illustrates his own heartfelt feeling: ‘I look upon human beings as automatons… because they all think they can do what they want but they can’t. They are not free. No one is.’

The space devoted to ‘Meaningful Matter,’ turns away from technology to the natural world, explored in Luke Howard’s sketches of clouds in the early 1800s, and in Anna Atkins’s pioneering cyanotypes of algae in 1843. In a later period, natural forms—and the museum’s own mathematical models—also inspired sculptural work like Barbara Hepworth’s Study with Colour and Strings (1939/1961) and Henry Moore’s series of string installations. Less familiar are the textile patterns prompted by atoms and molecules made for the 1951 Festival of Britain. These, used on everything from ashtrays to neck ties, were based on X-ray crystallographic patterns of haemoglobin, while the (rather hideous) olive-green wallpaper for the Festival Hall’s Regatta Restaurant on London’s South Bank drew upon a ‘contour map,’ provided by the crystallographer Helen Megaw, of the inner atoms of the crystalline mineral afwillite (first identified in South Africa in 1925 and named for a De Beers mining official, Alpheus Fuller Williams). How weird to see the optimism of the atomic age as décor.”

For more information, see sciencemuseum.org.uk.
Category: Exhibition
Science Museum
Exhibition Road, South Kensington,
London, United Kingdom