On the evening of Thursday 17th December 2015, for one night only, the Machines Room played host to Memories of the Future. Developed and curated by students from the Information Experience Design and History of Design MA courses at the Royal College of Art, the exhibition explored potential futures for International Exhibitions. Drawing on historical reflections on the 1862 International Exhibition and personal experiences of the 2015 Milan Expo, the exhibition brought together designers and historians in a creative and thought provoking process.
Having started only five weeks ago, the project was a whirlwind affair that faced ups and downs, but eventually resulted in a spectacular evening. Very much at the heart of Fig.9’s manifesto, several members of the collective were involved in this collaborative project; the editors of visit1862 providing historical consultation and other members helping students navigate the choppy waters of collective work. Students were faced with the age-old problem of communicating across disciplines, moving beyond stereotypes of what historians or designers are and do, and learning how to best utilise each others skills and knowledge.
Despite the challenges that projects such as these present, the work displayed in the exhibition emphasised how important such collaborations are. Drawn together with an interactive guidebook that took inspiration from guides published for the 1862 International Exhibition, Memories of the Future was based around five physical exhibits the explored various aspects of Expos pasts and futures.
Visitors, entering the space from a damp London evening, were first confronted by an array of (apparently) flying umbrellas. Labelled with a date, each umbrella formed a sound scape, using sounds to present various moments of technological modernity. Ranging from the sound of Charles Babbage’s ‘computer’ at the 1862 International Exhibition, to the imagined futuristic sounds of a ‘post-internet’ age, these umbrellas told broad technological stories in a personal way. Inspired by the ‘great stick debate’ at the 1862 International Exhibition, when visitors rebelled against rules banning them from bringing sticks and umbrellas into the exhibition space, these umbrella sounds scapes managed to combine the grand narrative of technological development with moments of personal sensory engagement with these various technologies, implying a critique of technological determinism and displaying humans’ continual ability to ‘stick-it-to-the-man’.
From a futuristic space of hanging umbrellas, to the steam-punk aesthetics of the Tempest Prognosticator. Inspired by a real machine displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition that used leeches to predict the weather, this machine took this idea one step further, using animal instinct to predict social, economic and political crises. Faithfully recreating the aesthetic of the original machine, this blast from the past was actually a reflection on our ability and desire to tell the future. Making imaginary dystopian predictions, it reflected on humanity’s propensity to expect the worst.
From leeches to chess. Sat at the far end of the main exhibition space was a chess table. However, this chessboard did not follow the normal rules, the blocks on the board were specially made so that they could only be moved to a small number of alternative squares. This board, and the actor hired to play this alternative game of chess with passing visitors, was using the chess tournament held alongside the 1862 International Exhibition as a story with which to frame broader discussions about freedom, restraint and hierarchical rules within the organisation of International Exhibitions. While competitors at the 1862 chess tournament were all invited to play as equals, the constraint placed on players using this specially crafted chessboard reflected on the inequality of display between different nations found at contemporary exhibitions. Should future exhibitions following national boundaries? Why do nations want to exhibition at these events when they cost so much money?
While visitors playing chess where on show for all to see, next to this exhibit was a much more ‘private’ experience. Taking inspiration from the idea for the first public toilet displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition, the students recreated a toilet space in the exhibition. Inviting visitors into the private space of the toilet to ‘spend a penny’, they asked them to write answers to questions about privacy on the ‘toilet’s’ walls. The private space of the toilet and people’s private thoughts about privacy thus became public knowledge. This exhibit therefore considered an often overlooked, but necessary, space within international exhibitions. A space, that despite its private nature, often sticks in the memory of visitors to these public places for a long time.
Finally visitors were ushered into a darkened room at the back of the exhibit and confronted with a million images of themselves at the same time! Behind a curved screen, a camera filmed visitors as they walked past it, projecting multiple images overlaid on top of other, making them difficult to read and interpret. Reflecting on what is meant by ‘a moment’ and the way in which images fragment our understanding of the present and the past, this exhibit was inspired by both the proliferation of images that are available to us in contemporary society, but also the historical problem of interpreting images of past exhibitions.
Although inspired by guidebooks sold at the 1862 International Exhibition, the guide that drew this exhibition together rejected both the format and size of these material objects. Comprised of five single sheets, each part of the guide took visitors to an interactive component of the exhibition space, providing a little bit more information about the exhibits and what they meant. These guides were therefore a direct reaction against the large size of nineteenth-century guidebooks and their densely packed text, demonstrating the possibility of providing information in an alternative form.
Full of so many interesting ideas, it is only a shame that this exhibition was only on for one night. But it is hoped that the conversations that it has begun between designers and historians will continue and that the success of this event will result in many more collaborative projects.
© Ruth Slatter, 2015