Go back to article: Challenges of conservation: working objects

Experiencing the real thing

These substitutes cannot provide the genuine sounds and smells and the sense of being fully immersed in the past. For many people it is the experience of the real thing which has the emotive power.

Here is a 1950s childhood memory of William J Mitchell:

Every evening the express train from Melbourne came thundering into town – passing through, and barely pausing on its way to Adelaide. You could hear the whistle blowing – with urgently increasing intensity, then a mournful, gorgeous Doppler shift – from miles away across the starlit plains. The locomotive was a magnificent smoking, hissing, clacking monster sporting a glowing firebox, a tender heaped with filthy coal, and huge, shiny wheels. It was my earliest intimation of the technological sublime (Mitchell, 2011, p 146).

The enthusiastic crowds recently gathered at King’s Cross station and along her route show that Flying Scotsman not only provides an exciting experience compounded of steam, sound, smell and speed, but is apparently highly emotive for those who remember steam trains, and amazing for those experiencing one for the first time (McLean, 2016).

Figure 7

Colour photograph of the Flying Scotsman steam locomotive following renovation

The Flying Scotsman steam locomotive

Seeing an object in movement may be very revealing of design and manufacturing skills. The famous eighteenth-century musical swan automaton in the Bowes Museum (County Durham) is a beautiful object when static but once in motion it becomes possible to see how cleverly the effect of the swan catching a fish was devised, and how ingeniously the rotating glass rods represent flowing water (Bowes Swan, 2008 and 2016). 

Figure 8

Composite image of three colour photographs of a silver mechanical swan model at the Bowes Museum

The Silver Swan musical automaton, c 1773, on display at the Bowes Museum

It seems that in this increasingly ready-made/touch-screen age people want to regain the experience of making or doing things for themselves, particularly to re-learn technologies which require practical skill. This is evident in the resurgence of traditional crafts, e.g. basket making or hand knitting (and in frequent craft fairs), in the enthusiasm for restoration and operation of steam traction engines or vintage cars, as seen in the numbers of amateur groups, and in the general interest in making (Charny, 2011; Gauntlett, 2011).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160608/014