Museum marvels

Paul Epp

I’ve been visiting a lot of museums this summer.

It’s been one of my intentions, as I drive across and around this country, and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do this. Many of the small town museums are quite similar. They display the tools of an earlier technology and the everyday objects of an earlier ordinary life.

They also display the local exceptional: perhaps there was someone who painted pictures of the local scenery. They profile the local heroes. There are pictures of students and their teachers. There are pictures of those who went to war. Much of what is displayed is quite similar, from town to town and province to province. I find this both a bit boring and also reassuring. Canadian communities are consistently decent, in this evidence of what they regard as important to preserve.

What is important to preserve? One theme is an escape from earlier ‘hard times.’ Pioneering in Canada was tough and there is pride in the accomplishment of prevailing, and in the present, easier times. Another theme is that of those who were more successful and more accomplished. Success can and should be celebrated.

Some museums stand out though, especially the ones that are not as local in character. They seek to tell a larger story, or one that is more explicit. It may be of an ethnic group, or it may be a focus on a particular industry or technology. Greater skill is displayed in the curation of the artefacts and their presentation. History is made more intelligible. We are extra fortunate to have these museums too.

As I view the exhibits, I have some of the same thoughts repeatedly. One is of the dominant role that design has played in our history. It has often gone unacknowledged, but the evidence is there. Someone, a designer by name or just by function, has gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that certain things are made as they are. There is conspicuous evidence of a concern for how a tool, or any thing else that is useful, actually works. There is a concern for appearance too. We like things to be pleasing to our eyes and some one has got to some trouble to ensure that they are. This is a job that I have done and here is evidence that I have had predecessors, who did much the same job as I at an earlier time, with an expression of the same values. I feel part of a long continuum and it makes me feel good. It’s a confirmation of my value.

The late British author and design educator David Pye wrote about ‘useless work.’ He was referring to the efforts that we expend on doing things that do not directly contribute to the bare function of what we are making. As an example, walls do not need to be flat. They will support the roof and keep out the cold even if they are not. But we typically go to great lengths to ensure that they are in fact nicely flat. Our dignity depends on it.

It is critical to understand that useless does not mean valueless. It certainly does not imply laziness, in fact just the opposite. This tendency towards doing things that are useless seems to be innate, especially in some of us. We want to do a job as well as it can be done which will give the highest priority to its function and will also invest our work with a pursuit of the kinds of pleasure that an object can provide its user. The potential pleasures might be tactile, in that our hands will feel gratified by their contact, both wittingly or incidentally, with texture and smoothness. It will be visual, so that our eyes will be satisfied by proportions, visual motion, harmony, rhythm, colour and so on. It may also be audible, as in the sound of a well-made car door closing both smoothly and conclusively.

We can value the non-essential even when it may not be to our financial advantage to do so. It can be hard to explain why we do this, but the things that are made with the expression of these values are the things that we collect and put in our museums.

Paul Epp is an adjunct professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its industrial design department.

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