Go back to article: Challenges of conservation: working objects

Alternatives to operating original objects

Can a satisfying experience be provided without operating original objects? The museum’s Fly 360° flight simulation, during which a visitor is invited to ‘take the controls yourself and perform your own aerial acrobatics’, must provide some of the thrill described by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry when writing about his first flight in 1921:

My senses of space, of distance, and of direction entirely vanished. [...] I thought I was very high up when I would suddenly be thrown to earth in a near vertical spin. I thought I was very low to the ground and I was pulled up to 3,000 feet in two minutes by the 500-horsepower motor. It danced, it pushed, it tossed… (de Saint-Exupéry 1921).

Full-sized replicas can also provide a satisfying experience – many of the Second World War Spitfire fighter planes still flying are presumably partly or wholly replica but nevertheless highly emotive. Watching a group of them in flight provides an evocative sound and reminds us how small and vulnerable these planes were.

Figure 4

Colour photograph of a renovated Spitfire aircraft outside the Museum of Science and Industry

A renovated Spitfire aircraft outside the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester

This museum has a magnificent collection of static models (which are impressive objects in their own right), many of which can be operated at the push of a button to demonstrate the movement of component parts. Is movement alone sufficient when it may be impossible to provide the context in which the machine would have operated? Taking examples displayed in the museum, the model of the double-beam engine (made in Bolton in 1804) is a beautiful object, running impressively smoothly, but without obvious context its purpose is not immediately clear (see Figure 5). On the other hand, to me, the model Victorian workshop does show successfully how many machines could be run off one engine and just how crowded and busy (and certainly noisy) such a workshop would have been (see Figure 6).

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a model of a beam engine from 1840

Model beam engine by James Hick, c 1840. This model was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851

Figure 6

Colour photograph of detail of a miniature machine workshop model from late 1800s on display in the Science Museum London

Detail from a model of an engineering workshop in the Science Museum, c 1850–1880

Looking into the future, perhaps 3D digital imaging and virtual haptics will enable us to handle and operate virtual objects thus avoiding risk to the original. But how satisfying will this be when it seems likely to eliminate idiosyncratic behaviour of mechanisms and the consequent need for skilled handling (MacDonald, 2006; Prytherch and Jefsioutine, 2007)?

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160608/013