Go back to article: Getting to grips with energy: fuel, materiality and daily life

Material representations

The representation of material objects is the classic terrain of museum curators. In the case of energy, the dominant inherited genre and narrative has been modernist and progressive, from early scientific experiments and the collection of lightning in a Leyden jar in the mid-eighteenth century across to turbines and models of nuclear power stations. International trade fairs and exhibitions, innovative advertising and showrooms all tried to surround gas and electricity with an aura of science and modernity. Today, this Whiggish story of advancing rationality and efficiency has run out of fuel. This is for two reasons. First, climate change and discourses of the Anthropocene have put a much darker shadow over this period. But, secondly and just as importantly for scholars and curators, the old narrative has been found wanting as a far too smooth and one-sided representation of energy in modern times. Electricity was not only communicated as cold scientific fact but through the body and emotions, and literally so. Public displays showed how currents were crawling down people’s bodies. One of the hyped early uses for electrical appliances was a vibrator for the treatment of hysteria, numbness and neuralgia. Electricity had shock value (Morus, 2011).[5] Electricity, in particular, has been the embodiment of the narrative of scientific modernity, but it never stood alone and needs to be viewed in relation to the kinds of visual representation expressed through other fuels, such as the wood or coal fire and the cultural genres attached to these. Finally, we need to step back and appreciate that not only the forms of visual representation have changed but the substance, too, as lighting itself has changed. Light bulbs have different ‘colour temperature’ (measured in Kelvins) and also render colour more or less sharply (the Colour Rendering Index). Light artists, such as Dan Flavin, and contemporary lighting manufacturers give a sense of the broadening spectrum of light and colour through which we are seeing the world. Artists and scholars alike are thus exploring new narratives and new forms of representation that step beyond the modernist, progressive genre.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180901/003