Tools: Cooper Hewitt Design Museum

Date: January 8, 2017 Category: ,

Written for Exhibition Display of Art & Material Culture, NYU Steinhardt, 2016
Taught by Andrew Weiner, Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Criticism, NYU Steinhardt.

Boldface statements by inventors and innovators line the walls of the Tools exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, presented in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute. Margaret Atwood, inventor of the LongPen, a telepresence system which replicates the act of writing, is quoted: “Science is a tool, and we invent tools to do the things we want. It’s a question of how these tools are used by people.” When interpreted, this quote emphasizes the thematic structure of the exhibition, which showcases hundreds of objects that span cultural history, from neolithic carving utensils to MIT prototypes. Tools are not only creations for present day societal needs, but catalysts for ongoing ingenuities. The display mimics integration, like a nonlinear timeline, forcing the old to interact with the new. And, no matter where an object is placed on this spectrum, you can sense the humanity Atwood references. Tools are also psychological here; as we grow more reliant on their assistance, we also grow more attached.

This begins the exhibitions first conceptual hurdle: how can multiple objects from various cultures, time periods, and methods blend together in a way that emphasizes an honest design education? While it can be believed that this exhibition intended to create an alternative approach to thinking about design history, more often than not, juxtaposing loosely related objects can create disingenuous associations rather than prompt truthful dialogue. Considering the exhibitions stress on highlighting the universal indispensability of various devices, the framing of some objects together are successful while others are more troubling.

The Whole Earth Catalogue (WEC, 1968) is an alternative publication that compiled user-generated reviews about new products, submitted from individuals from various cultures and locations; these editorial practices eventually shaped the development of modern internet blogging. Positioned next to the WEC is the Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts (1751), an encyclopedia that illustrated the available science tools of the time. While centuries apart, the older compilation by Denis Diderot is unobtrusive when placed next to the WEC, because they both stem from a similar ethos. Diderot believed that an encyclopedia could gather all human knowledge into one single work, much like the ideology behind the collaborative, informational mecca of a free and open internet.

Less favorable was a display case that features a 1.4 million year old handaxe with a first generation iPhone (2007) and a pocket knife with an attached USB drive, grouped together under the headline “multipurpose.” While this may be true (an iPhone is certainly multipurpose), it is a stretch to believe that an object so primitive that it predates most other manners of technology can be appropriately compared to one as iconographically commercial as an iPhone. The handaxe is and was a human survival tool, for hunting, scraping, and woodworking, necessary to meet basic needs (food, clothing, and shelter). With the inclusion of the modern knife and USB drive, this display is attempting to convince viewers that digital technologies are as essential to modern existence as the handaxe was to early humans, yet these comparisons were made prematurely. Even if the usage of smart phones is becoming more and more integral to first world productivity and workflow (with this line of thought, using an iPhone could indicate economic prosperity, which could also indicate better quality of life), placement alongside sacredly preserved survival tools feels largely irresponsible and does not properly indicate the sustainability of any civilization. If anything, assuming these relationships exist isolates a much larger portion of global culture that has limited, restricted, or virtually no access to such privileged technologies.

Interactivity plays a large part in this exhibition as well, though, it is important to note which objects were granted physical access to visitors and which were closed off. An alluring tonometer (1876) was glowing in a glass display case, tempting the viewer for play. However, instead of allowing the visitor to experiment, an adjacent sound piece created by Richard Chartier, commissioned by the Smithsonian, gives the instrument historical context though contemporary music. Alternately, the inFORM prototype, an ongoing development by the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, is highly approachable. The inFORM is a device for real time object manipulation; with the swipe of a hand over a tablet, visitors can move a ball around a 3D rendered platform. These comparisons continue the ongoing issue of technology placement when linked to archaic objects that require delicate preservation. A contemporary inFORM is more likely to inspire awe and curiosity from a visitor than a WWII pocket watch, and is also more likely to be photographed and shared, a sensible reason for an institution to herald its inclusion. The same could be said for Chartier’s soundscape: not including a work commissioned by the institution, when related, would have been a missed opportunity to share additional programming to the public.

The larger issue from these examples lies in the common association that digital technologies are more expendable than analog technologies; still a growing and changing industry, digital technologies carry the assumption of rapid expiration. As previously assessed, the 2007 iPhone could be seen as a historic object, as it was the first of it’s kind, yet when compared to the latest consumer model, the original iPhone underlines a distinct market need for near immediate technological growth. Thinking about prototypes like the inFORM (a concept so new it has barely found a purpose for its innovation) is interesting because it reinforces the speculation that digital technology is always on the cusp of adaptation. It will likely be several more decades until millennial era digital technologies can be considered socially and politically fit for meticulous conservation by institutions, as much so as an older object that can no longer be fabricated or reconceived by the marketplace.

The exhibitions focus on design objects is deliberate; the Cooper Hewitt is first a museum about design. A central installation by Damián Ortega (Controller of the Universe, 2007), supplies the show with its only piece of fine art. The work consists of assorted, aging tools hung invisibly from the ceiling in a shape of an explosion, lit to cast immersive shadows on visitors who were able to walk in and out of its framework. Engaging and ephemeral, but not enough to distract from the more practical displays, this work communicates many of the conceptual obstacles set in place by the exhibition’s format. It is multi-cultural (Ortega lives and works in Mexico City), interactive, and provides a contemporary take on vintage appliances. If tools are in fact psychological and can transmit many emotional responses in addition to serving their intended purpose, then the inclusion of this piece was a strong addition to an exhibition that needed something imaginative.