Into the Machine Hall: Lessons in Visitorship at Industrial Museums

By Sarah Rovang posted 07-11-2019 10:54


Preservation Leadership Forum is presenting a series of posts by Sarah Rovang, the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship from the Society of Architectural Historians. The fellowship allows its recipients—recent graduates with advanced degrees or emerging scholars—to study by travel for one year, providing them with opportunities to see and experience architecture and landscapes firsthand; think about their profession deeply; and acquire knowledge that will be useful for their future work, for contributions to their field, and for contributions to society. For Preservation Leadership Forum, Rovang will examine the many facets of storytelling at industrial heritage sites across the world. For more about Rovang's work, read her posts on the SAH Bloglisten to her podcast, and follow her on Instagram @sarahmoderne.

The main attraction at the Cruquius Museum near Amsterdam is a massive 19th-century steam pump that visitors can watch performing its remarkable operations. Housed in a beautifully preserved 1850s castellated Neo-Gothic brick pump house, the museum explores the technologies through which Dutch polders (or lakes) below sea level have been drained to create usable agricultural regions and defensible areas. Though the main pump has been retrofitted to work with electricity rather than coal-fired steam, much of the drama of the original experience is maintained. The docent on duty turns a key and, within a matter of seconds, the hydraulic pump ascends. From the center of the pump house floor rise eight burly cast-iron arms, each hefting an 8,000 liter bucket full of water from the polder (or lake) below. The visceral thrill of being in the same space with this slowly pulsating industrial spider is infectious—the kind of full-body experience that would be impossible to duplicate through a digital display. Seeing that demonstration in action made the whole concept of Dutch land reclamation come alive for me. This is evident in the short film clip below, where even though the pump is now powered by electricity, visitors can still watch this industrial apparatus dredge up 256,000 liters of water every minute.

I’ve been to dozens of industrial museums over the past seven months and have seen almost as many different approaches taken to curating and interpreting the objects on display. In the best of cases, as at the Cruquius Museum, I’ve left understanding how a new machine or process works and its historical context within the society that used it. That’s not always the case though. Just as often, I’ve visited industry museums to enter the vast “machine hall” and ended up feeling as lost and befuddled as visitors probably did entering the original machine halls of the great 19th-century world’s fairs. Even today, in the age of Wikipedia, I would wager that most non-specialists and non-hobbyists have little occasion to seriously consider the inner workings of an internal combustion engine, let alone dozens of examples spanning decades. What do you do when confronted with this kind of display? How do you make sense of it and turn this encounter into a meaningful museum experience?

Ideally, every museum we visit immediately feels welcoming, intuitive, and interactive. And, ideally, we visitors show up attentive and ready to learn. When those conditions of curatorship and visitorship align, magical things happen. But we all know that that’s not always the case. Last week, when I arrived at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris I was full from lunch, tired of walking, and wishing for a cappuccino. Instead, I entered a room full of intricate scientific instruments artfully displayed behind glass partitions. My first inclination was to turn right around and head for la sortie.

Engine Hall at Musée des Arts et Métiers,
So many engines at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, so little time. How do you approach this kind of display as a visitor without feeling overwhelmed? | Credit: Sarah Rovang

But I’m glad I didn’t. Instead, I used that visit as an opportunity to think about the strategies that we can use as visitors to get more out of museums of industrial heritage—particularly those that are overwhelming in their comprehensiveness. Even highly professional and well-curated museums like Arts et Métiers can veer toward the phenomenon I’ve dubbed on my personal blog as “artifact vomit”—the museological compulsion to make use of a large exhibition space by displaying everything. Artifact vomit tends to be a particular issue at museums of the Industrial Age, which, by their very nature, typically showcase mass-produced objects, frequently in mass quantities and at scales that are difficult to process.

The following visitor strategies are arranged in order from those requiring more focus and concentration to those that require less.

Identify the collection’s strengths and focus your time there. Two things stood out to me as unique strengths at Arts et Métiers: its collection of 18th-century automata and its artifacts related to the birth of precision measurements in science. The museum even had a temporary sub-exhibition about the rise of standard measurement systems, where certain objects in the permanent collection related to that theme had been marked with bright red signs. Focusing just on the highlighted objects, which told a concise and comprehensible story within the bigger arc of industrialization, relieved me of the compulsion to look at every single object. And the display of automata was all within one small room—a size, that unlike the massive machine halls, a visitor could reasonably tackle in its entirety. 

The “star” of the automata collection at Arts et Métiers is “La Joueuse de tympanon,” created in 1780 by David Roentgen. The remarkable automaton is modeled after Marie Antoinette and plays a miniature dulcimer. It is displayed alongside a small collection of other exemplary automata from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Don’t try to look at all 20 examples; pick one or two. This is typical advice given to visitors at art museums, but it applies to science and industry museums as well. At industrial museums, I’ll typically pick just one object and try to learn not only its history but also how it works or how it was made. The objects that I tend to gravitate towards are those that tell a specific story within in a cultural context.

A look at how everyday objects are used as part of a display.
It is also fascinating to see familiar and everyday objects recontextualized in the space of a museum. Here, a 20 Gb Apple iPod from 2005 is presented alongside other technologies for storing digital data. | Credit: Sarah Rovang


Find the objects that “speak to you.” Faced with a massive art museum, I usually head right to the modern wing. If I don’t feel bad about skipping sections in an art museum, why should a museum of industry be any different? I don’t have to slog through a room full of engines if I’d rather be looking at Jacquard looms or lightbulbs. Have a passion for climate change? Check out technologies pertaining to energy production over the years. Maybe you’re into computers—try to find the information machines that led to the development of early computing.

View of a Jacquard loom

An early Jacquard loom, c. 1810, which uses a system of punch-cards to automate the production of complex patterns in textiles. This early example of automation intrigues me, and I find it easier to approach than other types of industrial machinery.| Credit: Sarah Rovang

 Find the art in the machines. Back in 1934, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a groundbreaking exhibition called “Machine Art,” where machine-age objects were presented in a traditional gallery setting, blurring the lines between high art and industrial design. Sometimes I’ll mentally curate my own “Machine Art” exhibition based on the objects available in a given industrial museum. Finding the sheer aesthetic joy in industrial machines and products takes off some of the pressure of trying to understand how everything works.


1888 four-cylinder motor

This 1888 four-cylinder motor caught my eye as having a pleasing sculptural quality. Trying to envision it placed in an art museum provides a new outlook on this object. Put a black-and-white filter on, post it to Instagram, and you’ve just made your own digital Machine Art exhibit. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Step back and enjoy the space. Industrial museums, by virtue of the size of the artifacts in their collections, are often housed in fascinating heritage spaces such as reused factories. Arts et Métier’s showpiece space is actually a former church, the lovely Romanesque Église Saint-Martin-des-Champs. The viewing platform elevates visitors to nearly ceiling height, transforming the visitor’s usually terrestrial experience of ecclesiastical architecture. Additionally, I also have come to appreciate listening to industrial heritage museums, which have interesting acoustical properties and often feature working machines or sound installations. I’ve become adept at picking out the sound of a spinning mule jenny, the vast textile machine whose whirs and thumps are frequently used as a metonym to evoke “industry” more generally.

Interior of Saint-Martin-des-Champs

This image is from the interior of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, a former church that has been repurposed by the Musée des Arts et Métiers to house a Foucault’s Pendulum and a multi-tiered exhibit of transportation technologies through the ages. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

As visitors, we sometimes forget our own agency in shaping a museum experience. Particularly in museums outside our particular comfort zones or fields of expertise, it can be tempting to surrender control and end up feeling overwhelmed. Do you have other ways of connecting to challenging or unfamiliar museum content? That’s great! Just allow yourself to interact as you’d like with the exhibits and spaces, not be ruled by them, and make the experience your own.

Sarah Rovang is an architectural historian, curator, and educator specializing in 20th-century American architecture with particular attention to technology, modernization, and the rural landscape.



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