- Robots: The 500-year Quest to Make Machines Human
Special exhibition, Science Museum, London, 8 February–3 September 2017
Without any doubt, robots fascinate mankind. During the last five to ten years, this field of technology has gained tremendous public attention and attracted significant research funding for both civilian and military purposes. The general technical progress in fields such as electronics, mechanics, and computer science and their convergence over the last two decades have triggered an increasing presence of robots in the industrial as well as the private spheres. Yet our conception of robots continues to be inspired by plays, novels, films, and more recently electronic games, all of which have little in common with industrial robots. With their broad technological and social impact, robotics is thus an attractive topic for museums of science and technology. Such interest has been evident since the beginning of the twenty-first century through the creation of a range of exhibitions that attracted large numbers of visitors in various European cities.1
In 2017 the Science Museum in London opened a temporary exhibition on robotics that featured a unique collection of more than a hundred objects focusing on humanoid robots from the sixteenth century to the present [End Page 159] day. This exhibition, developed by the Science Museum’s curator of mechanical engineering, Ben Russell, and his team, ran from 8 February to 3 September 2017 and will be traveling internationally after its closure in London. It is divided into five sections (“Marvel,” “Obey,” “Dream,” “Build,” and “Imagine”), which are presented in a chronological sequence in five separate rooms. The exhibition team unfolds the narrative of the five sections using five different historical periods and locations. The designer’s concept corresponds to this order of topics by implementing a consecutive itinerary.
In accord with the exhibition’s title, it constructs a narrative about mankind’s quest for humanlike machines. The curators start in the sixteenth century, when European thinkers increasingly thought of humans and indeed the universe itself as machinelike. They follow it with an exploration of the Industrial Revolution and the complex systems of machinery within which humans became embedded. They explore the continuing fascination with the creation of humanlike machines in the present day and finish the narrative with questions about how people can live together with this kind of robot.
Structure and Outline of the Exhibition
The entrance area is designed as a wall made of a hard plastic sheet that resembles a bedspread, obscuring a direct view into the first section. The visitors are confronted with an animatronic baby hanging in front of the plastic sheet, illuminated by colored artificial light and surrounded by a light halo (fig. 1). Such astonishingly lifelike mechanical babies are used to replace infants in films. While passing into the first section, the animatronic baby’s mechanical nature is revealed from the side. This very realistic figurine is supposed to provoke emotion, whether a protective instinct or a feeling of repulsion. The staged presentation of the baby leaves room for interpretation (fig. 2).
The first section, “Marvel,” focuses on the years between 1570 and 1800. Rare mechanical objects are displayed in a dark room. Creating a dark environment is not only necessary for conservation purposes but also creates a vivid lighting contrast between this section and the entry. The objects are of outstanding design and beauty. Most of them use clockworks as their impetus and include orreries, demonstrating the movements of planets, hand prostheses, and automata of men and animals. One striking example is the oldest object in the exhibition, the Automaton Monk (supposedly constructed in Spain or southern Germany around 1560), which was built as an offering on behalf of King Philip II of Spain. The monk is able to pray, walk across the table, move his lips, raise a crucifix and rosary, and beat his breast in contrition. Another such automaton is the Draughtsman-Writer [End Page 160] by Henri Maillardet (London, ca. 1800). It draws pictures and writes poems via the control of an elaborate set of cams, storing the details of four drawings and three...