Over the summer I visited the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, a small town by Lake Constance in Southern Germany. The museum was small but well laid out. I’m not going to discuss here what I saw in there as I use that sort of thing in stories, but it was all interesting stuff. All in all a fascinating visit, marred only at the end by something that is all too common now when visiting technical museums. Something that annoys me more and more, something that reduces me to standing in the middle of some room loudly asking:
Why is there an art exhibition?
Why, every time I visit the a museum showing steam engines, industry, aeroplanes, cars, anything vaguely scientific, do I have to have an art exhibition thrust upon me? Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that I don’t enjoy art galleries, I have even written about them here on occasion. No, what irritates me is the patronising assumption that whilst I’m looking at a history of how things were made, I also need to be culturally educated in some way by second rate artists who couldn’t get their work displayed anywhere else.
Worse, there will be a sign up explaining to me that there is a link between science and art, and this is going to be demonstrated by some painter’s abstract representation of machinery they probably don’t even understand. This annoys me for two reasons. Firstly, you don’t need an artist to show you the link: the form of just about every machine transcends its function – there is a beauty in the shape of those Zeppelins that is owed to more than just aeronautical design. Why not point that out, rather than forcing me to walk through a selection of badly executed paintings before I rejoin the exhibition I came to see? Secondly, if the link between science and art must be expressed, why, on leaving an exhibition of sculpture or ceramic design, do I never see a small display explaining how the internal combustion engine works? Don’t supposedly arty types need educating too?
I am not arguing for a moment there is no link between science and art. Of course there is, although every so often I hear a report on the TV or radio discussing a new artist who is producing revolutionary work combining the two. Is this supposed to be news? I know lots of people who have been doing just that for years.
Haven’t the BBC heard of Science Fiction?
Very true. It’s as though someone considers art, which when all said and done anyone can have a crack at, superior to engineering which takes years of dedication and skill to get the hang of.
Now I love a bit of art, I really do. When in the national gallery I’m making a bee-line for the Canalettos. Give me some modern stuff and I can often appreciated the form of the piece even if I do spend more time marvelling at the skill required to make it.
However I don’t see that we should be encouraged to see engineering through the prism of a painting. As you say, there is joy in the form and line of a well made machine. Simply appreciating the quality of construction is worthwhile.
I suspect this comes down to curators feeling that the engineering stuff is difficult so let’s show them a pretty picture. Far easier for people to understand.
Oh, and all art uses science. Who works on canvas without the aid of chemicals called paint ? Who carves without using tools relying on the properties of metal like steel. I am reminded of the Golgafringon scene in The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy. They invented the wheel (sort of) but were more interested in the colour it should be painted than how well it worked.