Kelham Island Museum: Museum of Tools —

Kelham Island Museum is part of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, which gives an idea of the sort of thing going on inside this old iron foundry. I was expecting general local history, cutlery, coffee pots etc. but hadn’t appreciated that those skills also meant that Sheffield made a lot of engineering and hand tools too.

As such, the museum is also host to the extraordinary Hawley Collection. A remarkable assortment of tools and works in progress that show how the tools were made. This means that the tools that made the tools are also presented - leading to a wonderful sort of meta exhibit.

 

The really great thing is that it’s a personal collection turned institutional, and where you’d expect more gaps, and more bias you’re met with sheer quantity of artefacts and a really well presented, coherent exhibit. Both the character of the founder, Ken, and the group of volunteers that man the ‘research room’, (biscuits and enthusiastic tool chat were more noticeable) are firmly felt in the gallery.

 

Elsewhere in the museum is the massive River Don Engine that came to the museum straight from the factory floor where it had been used to make armour plating for nuclear power stations.

 

I also really appreciate any museum that incorporates it’s archives and restoration work into it’s displays – It gives a sense of continuation, activity, and relevance.

 

Place, People, & Identity —

A few things that go together:

At the moment I’m on the look out for instances where people visually communicate where they’re from in bold and colourful ways. 

 

I first got interested in the film The Warriors as part of a workshop I was running, around the topic of urban spaces and identity. It’s an amazing film that sees a gang dislocated from their main Coney Island turf and subsequently fighting their way back through a series of rival gangs. Each group wears their back story on their sleeves, The Orphans wear rags and have razor blades whilst The Baseball Furies are a baseball gang with the fiercest face paint I’ve ever seen. Each member has an identity built from their gangs kit of parts (hair cuts, uniforms, weapons, patterns), this results in a sophisticated ‘same but different’ look amongst the members of each gang and the cumulative effect is both visually striking and laden with narrative.

 

I saw these Asafo flags in the Artist and Empire show at the Tate Britain. From what I can gather the Asafo Companies were and are a hierarchical people’s militia of the Akan societies of Ghana, with influence extending more broadly to act as social and political organisations. The areas colonial past can be read in the morphed Union Jacks in canton (meaning the upper left quadrant of the flag), each flag has a wide, patterned border, and each depict allegorical fight scenes. These flags become identifiers for the various Companies of Asafo. Their interest to me is in their variety within the constraints of the vernacular graphics.

 

The Palio is a horse race in Siena. Characterised as violent, dangerous, and intensely political it’s been running twice a year since the 1600s. Spectators from ten city wards gather to watch their champion race for the glory of their part of town. The horses, riders, and spectators are covered in banners of the 17 various contrade colours. As Wikipedia says: “Each is named after an animal or symbol and each with its own long history and complicated set of heraldic and semi-mythological associations.”For example, Bruco means caterpillar and it’s residents were traditionally in the silk trade. The amazing thing here is the pride, fervour, and consistency with which each contrada’s colour is applied. I found it through this BBC programme: The Toughest Horse Race in the World: Palio

 

The Language of Things —

I’ve just finished Dejan Sudjic’s excellent book The Language of Things; Design, Luxury, Fashion, Art. How We Are Seduced by the Objects Around Us. I’ve drawn up the extracts I want to remember, this is mostly within the contexts of design vs art and my perennial fascination with collecting.

It is just possible that we might be on the verge of a wave of revulsion against the phenomenon of manufacturing desire, against the whole avalanche of products that threatens to overwhelm us. However, there is no sign of it yet, despite the outbreak of millenarian anxiety about the doom that faces us if we go on binge-flying. Even the return of the selling of indulgences, a practice abandoned by the medieval church and now resurrected in the form of carbon offset payments, is not stopping us from changing cellphones every six months.
— pg 6
Just a few of these useless objects re-enter the economic cycle as part of the curious ecology of collecting. but collecting is in itself a very special kind of fetish, perhaps one that is best understood as an attempt to roll back the passing of time. It might also be an attempt to defy the threat of mortality. To collect a sequence of objects is, for a moment at least, to have imposed some sense of order on a universe that doesn’t have any.
— pg 21 

The aims of the first hoarder/curators of the great cabinets of curiosity were to amass more treasures than could be seen by one man in a lifetime of travel, thus collecting objects is directly equitable to the collecting of time. Most people would say to a lesser or greater extent that their objects are a good representation of them, that maybe they are defined by them in some way. It stands to reason then, that these objects that are imbued with the owners personality, continue on after the owners death, and should keep the collector alive in some small way.

Somewhere between these two versions design is the idea that design is a public service. It’s notable that the in Britain one of the first industrial-design practices that emerged in the 1940s called itself the Design Research Unit, a name calculated to suggest that it was a branch of the Welfare State more than any kind of commercial activity, even though it was actually started as the subsidiary of an advertising agency.
— pg 26

Some one once said that design is a social discipline, (requiring conversation, discussion and collaboration) if only because it has social consequences. I can’t remember who and google won’t tell me – any help greatly appreciated!

The machine works away diligently and fills our bookcases with ill-printed volumes, its criterion is cheapness. Yet every cultured individual should feel ashamed of such material abundance. For on the one hand, ease of production leads to a diminished sense of responsibility, while on the other abundance leads to perfunctoriness. How many books do we genuinely make our own? And should one not possess these in the best paper, bound in splendid leather? Have we perhaps forgotten that the love with which the book has been printed, decorated and bound creates a completely different relationship between it and us, and that intercourse with beautiful things makes us more beautiful?
— Josef Hoffman, The Manifesto of the Wiener Werkstätte, 1905
— pg 116

Sudjic sees it as a Hoffman justifying luxury. It seems more interesting to me in the kindle vs book (non) debate, and beyond that, as an easy first example of ‘the medium is the message’. I’m also fascinated by what we choose to have in our homes, and choose to elevate as ‘special’, (multiple versions, collectors sets, or luxury materials), and how we give chunks of ourselves to objects and things in the hope that they might extend our personalities or somehow make them more tangible and accessible to others.

It is a curious paradox that even the most materialist of us tend to value what might be called the useless above the useful. Useless not in the sense of being without purpose, but without utility, or at least with not much of it.
— pg 167
[On MOMAs treatment of design in an art gallery]
The price for a Swedish-designed – though carefully selected US-made – version of a chromium-plated self-aligning steel ball bearing to be placed in the same context as Fernand Léger’s painting of a ball bearing was to caption it exactly as if it were a painting. There was nothing more than a blank announcement of date, media and name to distract the visitors from their reverential contemplation of these sacred relics. Nothing about what this undeniably beautiful object was for, or how it was made, could be included.
— pg 172

I can share this frustration, whilst admirably trying to put design and art on the same platform the curators have wrongly treated the design as art. Not only does this impose an implicit hierarchy between the two subjects it also strips the design of everything that makes it design: it’s context and process of creation. Like an embarrassed child the labelling denies the ball bearing’s heritage. As Sudjic goes on to say ‘For design, context and process are essential’.

Dejan Sudjic, The Language of Things (London: Penguin, 2009)

 

Feral: Shifting Baseline Syndrome & Trophic Cascades —

After writing this post I found a Ted video of Monbiot explaining what I wanted to in a much better way. So you could watch that instead.

I’ve just finished reading Feral by George Monbiot. It’s an articulate, intoxicating and inspirational read even if points are, at times, a little simplistically or evangelically argued. He advocates for rewilding as a method of more holistic conservation than simply maintaining what already exists. He argues passionately for how this could create a more imaginative, thrilling, economically and ecologically advantageous environment.

There were two particular ideas which I’d not come across before that seemed so logical and exciting that I wanted to write them here to remember:

The first is Shifting Baseline Syndrome. This is what happens when conservationists (or policy makers or whoever), seek to effect a change to put something back to the way it was, believing that this ‘before state’, is not just an acceptable scenario, but that it’s the best it could be. Monbiot uses fishing as an example of how people’s reference points move. Current fish stocks are being measured against their 1970s population, this however, is already a substantially reduced position and doesn’t provide a good reference point for the best case scenario, (which for fish populations was sometime before modern commercial fishing technology got involved).

The second is the idea of Trophic Cascade. When deer graze they eat and kill lots of saplings and would-be trees that don’t get a chance to grow. You end up with treeless grasslands, or similar monocultures that don’t provide the kinds of habitats that encourage a diverse flora and fauna. This is not good as trees are brilliant for everything it seems – from creating better soil conditions, to providing dead wood habitats for thousands of creatures, and helping to prevent flooding by helping with soil erosion and rain run-off. This situation has arisen over decades of human influence that’s squeezed out top of the food chain predators. What happens when you reintroduce these predators (think wolves, lynx etc.) is that the browsing animals begin to get eaten and so are reduced in number, limiting their effect. But the more interesting thing is that it alters their behaviour and how they eat. Rather than being allowed free reign the deer are more cautious, and so don’t hang around the river where they are in the open and are easy prey. This allows plants that would have previously been eaten to grow up around the river, leaves fall into it, which increases the ecology of the river and also provides shade. All these factors encourage shrimpy creatures and subsequently the eels etc. that prey on them. So everything is connected and can be altered by relatively smallish tweeks at the top of the ecological cascade.

This reintroduction of predators is currently being played out in Wales where they’re looking for people to let Lynx on their land.

And if that’s not far enough the Long Now project: Revive and Restore is looking to take extinct species (so completely gone, dead and not here anymore), and using Jurassic Park style technology genetically modify and selectively breed back a range of animals. Their key specimen being a Woolly Mammoth! Brilliant talk by Stewart Brand about this here.

 

Bombs —

These three links caught my attention as a group and I thought I’d share them here.

 

Bomb Sight uses archival data and modern mapping software to display where all the recorded bombs fell on London during WW2. The delivery mechanism means people immediately search for the places and areas that they live, work and inhabit everyday. Being able to relate archival data to your life now is such a powerful way to connect with history and to understand the blitz’s impact.

 

Starfish sites where created away real bombing targets in the UK to try and draw attention and bombs from German raids.

 

Wartime factories on the west coast of America created elaborate set designs on top of their factories to disguise them as fields and suburban streets. 

 

Data Granularity —

This went round the studio the other day: catswing.io

 

It brilliantly and simply shows how much space costs in London. It got me thinking about data granularity and how you could compare this map to Whereabouts London and also Rightmove

 

Each has more and more data and information about the various areas, and of course each has their place. But I wonder if there’s not enough clear information similar to Catswing for other issues or data heavy questions. What other problems could be better of more clearly explained? Sometimes all you need is the overview where someone’s done all the hard work for you.