Sunday, June 5, 2011

Building Futures

Elektro, by Westinghouse, courtesy of NBM

Yesterday I got to see Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., conveniently located across from the Judiciary Square Metro stop.

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(Left, entrance to National Building Museum. Right, sculptures at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, adjacent to Judiciary Square Metro stop. Photos by C. G. Wagner)

It's another one of those not-Air-and-Space-Museum museums I'd always been meaning to explore, and I heard about this World's Fair exhibition thanks to a flyer from the Art Deco Society of Washington, which was promoting some related lectures and tours.

Unfortunately, ADSW's events were off-site, somewhere in Virginia, but the exhibit was worth an afternoon downtown. Also, unfortunately, the Building Museum had a bunch of other events scheduled that I didn't know about. Anybody attending the Intelligent Cities Forum tomorrow (June 6), I'd love a report. I didn't know about it. I'm not omniscient. (Shocker.)

In addition to the World's Fairs exhibit, the museum also was showing the work of Art Deco muralist Hildreth Meière, but this work was in a separate gallery, on a different floor, rather than considered alongside the aesthetic works of the World's Fairs. Curious. There was also something to do with LEGOs, which cost $5 and didn't seem worth it to me, so I didn't go to that.

I liked the big open atrium of the Building Museum, but didn't know why there were tables set up with numbers, like they were expecting to host the Taste of DC or some big reception. Had I just missed something? Was I hours early for an evening event I didn't know about? Dang that lack of omniscience.


So the "Designing Tomorrow" exhibit was what I focused on. I tried to take my time with the huge collages of pictures and the captions that were too small and placed too low for me to read - if I could even find which caption went with which image. The Web site said they included 200 artifacts from the various World's Fairs that took place across the U.S. during the Great Depression, but they were overwhelmed by the big posters.

The artifact I was most interested in was the big robot, called Elektro: Moto-Man. But what was on display (according to the teensy-weensy caption) was a replica. The plastic model looked imposing but cheap. The grainy video showing Elektro in action was much more interesting. You can find it on YouTube.

I did learn that there was more than one World's Fair in the 1930s. The two I usually only hear about are Chicago's Century of Progress and the great New York World's Fair of 1939/1940, the one with the Trylon and Perisphere. I didn't learn all that much about Elektro and robots and the role of automation. Even the exhibition book only mentions it in a passing reference on page 10.

I wanted to learn more about Art Deco, but the long captions about the designers of the Fairs were impossible to absorb while standing and leaning over the display cases. So I'm glad I got the book, even if it doesn't include the Hildreth Meière stuff. I guess I could have bought her exhibition book too.

I got a good picture of how much influence industry now had on shaping the nation. By the 1930s, I don't know whether they were just trying to stimulate consumption by promising grander futures or just generally distracting the American public from the war in Europe. Probably both.

The future we were building then was one of comfort and convenience. But even the robots were taught to smoke. No wonder futurists get blamed for so much.

More press pictures from NBM for "Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s"

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