Go back to article: A symposium on histories of use and tacit skills

Klaus Staubermann: Museums, tools and the tacit

I want to introduce tacit skills by looking at objects that are sometimes perceived to be boring, rather than ‘iconic’ objects usually found in museum displays, such as Dolly the Sheep or Concorde. It is easy to overlook the ninety per cent or more of our collections that are not on display but kept in storage, and to make the assumption that absence from display equates with lack of intrinsic interest. But it is the curators’ or historians’ responsibility to interpret and make sense of all objects, whether ‘exciting’ or ‘boring’. This responsibility comes with the added challenge: to keep these collections ‘alive’, to capture their history and share it with our audiences. There are many different approaches to understanding objects, including looking into their makers and users. But how do we capture this knowledge and how do we bring it back to life? The easiest way is probably to draw on living experience, knowledge and memory. This means speaking to people that use or used objects and capturing and recording their experience with the object. There are other approaches to capturing historic knowledge of course, for example, through trade catalogues, order books, blueprints, design drawings or photographs.

Figure 1

Black and white photograph of a woman working a machine tool during the mid twentieth century

Machine tooling during the war effort

But it is important to note that not every skill is recorded. There are tacit skills or, more broadly, tacit knowledge that is not recorded, perhaps because it was not considered relevant at the time or it was simply not recordable. Think of a DVD player today: if the instructions tell us to connect it to 220-240 volt AC we know what that means, but two hundred years from now this knowledge might be lost. Images can be helpful sources: take, for example, the image of the machine tool above (see Figure 1) in which one might notice a water supply pipe. Little might be known and documented about its use, although one could speculate that it was used to clean or cool a work piece. We need to be careful with the interpretation of images, however. This image could, for instance, lead to the assumption that women were a normal part of the workforce. But the women depicted were part of the war effort and remained the exception in many industries. Photographs can help us to understand some tacit aspects of practice, such as the need to protect one’s hair or not to wear long sleeves that might get entangled in the machine. Beyond what is deducible from photographs, other tacit dimensions might include the role of noise, temperature or humidity and how these affect the workplace, worker or workpiece. The physical investigation of museum objects offers another source of evidence for historic practices. Traces of historic activity can be manifested in damage, wear or stains (although such evidence may often have been reduced or removed by museum practices such as object cleaning).

A dimension of context that is often overlooked in museums is the scale of production. Museums tend to collect individual objects, and this risks giving the impression that these were one-off items, whereas they were often part of large-scale production or even mass-production. Machine tools like the one pictured in Figure 1 were produced by the thousands and supplied to the Empire and beyond. Many were scrapped later and only a few ended up in museums. This again is something we need to bear in mind when we talk in the museum context about the making and uses of these objects. Furthermore, objects such as machine tools would have been accompanied by parts and spares, witnesses to customisation and use, many of which may not have found their way into museums and must be considered lost today.

The history of an object continues across its working life. For example, a machine tool that has been built in Scotland might get used in Eastern Europe and after that in the Near East and eventually in Asia. The history of use is also a history of customisation, maintenance and repair which is often reflected in the surviving artefact. It is very much a global history, a history of appropriation of materials and techniques. How do we capture this history and how do we, in the museum, keep these techniques alive? One possible approach is via performance. In the figures below you see a weaver operating one of the looms on our galleries at National Museums Scotland (see Figure 2) and one of our traction engines, a 1906 Marshall, driven by me and a former colleague (see Figure 3). We are operating these machines to keep the associated historic practices alive.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of of a weaver demonstrating how to work a loom in front of a museum audience

Weaving demonstration on the National Museums Scotland galleries

Figure 3

Colour photograph of a restored Marshall traction engine from 1906

Driving a 1906 Marshall traction engine

Where museum conservation permits, working with the actual object enables us to obtain a deeper understanding of its form and function. When we cannot use actual artefacts, for example for conservation reasons, it is sometimes possible to rebuild objects, and this in return enables us to explore their design, manufacture and uses.

Replicating artefact experiences, which means rebuilding and re-enactment, can provide us with a deeper and more complex understanding of historic practice and techniques. This can include haptic or gestural experiences but also the recreation of sound, vision or even taste. If, for example, the actual artefact is not in existence anymore we can reconstruct it, which process itself enables us to reconstruct a making experience which otherwise would have been lost. Replication has its origins in experimental archaeology and has become a powerful research and teaching method in the history of science and technology during the past thirty years (Staubermann, 2011).

The potential for research is clear, but how we can convey these historic practices and techniques to our museum audiences, especially in those cases where we cannot demonstrate or operate the actual artefacts on our galleries? Participation enables us to communicate complex knowledge and this is something both children and adults benefit from, but especially children because of their broad multisensory approach to the world. This can reach from exhibition interactives to workshop events.

My last figure (see Figure 4) shows 3D printing in our galleries, an example of a participatory activity we are currently experimenting with. Here visitors can print their own objects which then go on to display. This is an example of where active creation in the museum closes the circle between designer, maker, user and visitor. Here, the visitor can become her or his own exhibition maker and perhaps it is this public participation centred on manufacture that marks the museum of the future.

Figure 4

Colour photograph of a 3d printing demonstration inside a museum

Public 3D printing event at National Museums Scotland

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170808/002