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

The contribution of this special issue on the Material Culture of Energy

As customary in this journal, the articles in this special issue are organised by genre into research pieces, discussion pieces (in this case including a group of articles on museum practice) and object biographies. Each article can be read as a discrete work but we also invite readers to read across them and travel between the various layers of the material cultures of energy. In her contribution, Lynda Nead unpacks the meanings and associations of the coal fire in Britain after the Second World War. ‘Modern’ gas and electricity had made considerable advances in the inter-war years, but, as she shows, it is quite misleading to think of the open coal fire as ‘traditional’ or in retreat. Rather, the coal fire experienced a cultural resurgence, flickering with highly modern ideas about post-war reconstruction and national identity. The article also demonstrates how to view energy in a fresh light by combining different genres of sources, from smoke abatement reports to radio, literature and architectural reviews. Hal Wilhite adds an anthropological perspective on the shifting body politics of energy use in India. His ethnographic in-depth case study of the advance of the refrigerator in households in Kerala reveals how new cooling technology has been changing ideas of bodily health, freshness and convenience. The final piece in the research article section takes a long-term comparative view of the course of electrification in twentieth century Canada and Japan. Combining the methods of geography and history, Heather Chappells and Hiroki Shin remind us of the different paths taken by electricity between and within countries. Instead of showing a convergence towards a shared ideal of electrical modernity, Canada and Japan reveal multiple co-existing arrangements. Connections, the authors argue, involved cultural as well as material arrangements. Where these did not match up, the result was frustrated and protesting consumers.

Joanna Entwistle and Don Slater illuminate a subject that is at the same time one of the most pervasive yet neglected aspects of the material cultures of energy: lighting. Taking us from the conceptual plane into the streets of Cartagena, Colombia, they reveal the interplay between intended und unintended sources of light, social spaces and practices. Genuinely interdisciplinary, combining sociology, architecture and urban planning, their project is an example of how creative academic research can make a difference by engaging technical experts with local communities, in this case over lighting design.

Stuart Butler reports on the multi-country project History of Nuclear Energy and Society (HoNESt), which started in September 2015 and has been funded by Euratom (the European Atomic Energy Community) and the European Commission in its Horizon 2020 programme. There are methodological reflections here on the challenges of tracing attitudes to nuclear power in twenty countries with different political systems, literatures and sources. Brought into conversation with each other, these investigations revealed the insights from detailed comparative analysis. Views about nuclear and social protests, Butler shows, remained entangled in specific national and regional political cultures and concerns.

A discrete and tangible object is at the centre of Alice Cliff and Jenny Rinkinen’s investigation: a three-dimensional chart of a load curve from Manchester in the early 1950s. Their article shows the value of combining curatorial and academic expertise on material culture and sociology. Taking us on quest through the biography of this rare specimen and its material layers, they situate it in the wider history of visualisation techniques, unpack its daily use by the experts at the Central Electricity Generating Board, and situate it within the temporal patterns of work and housework characteristic of the period.

Four articles describe approaches to energy exhibitions in museums in the UK and Europe. That energy can spark emotions is the context for Sarah Kellberg and Christina Newinger’s contribution on the energie.wenden exhibition at the Deutsches Museum. In the exhibition, viewers were literally asked to ‘turn energy around’ when thinking about ‘energy transition’, a hugely controversial (and expensive) political as well as social and environmental undertaking, especially in Germany where the phasing out of nuclear power by 2022 and the shift to renewables has been a major policy and civic platform. Instead of taking a linear approach, from the problem of our growing reliance on energy to a technical solution, the exhibition gave viewers a chance to observe the different approaches taken across the world. And the de-centring of solutions also made use of the emotional and social reactions of museum visitors. Viewers also had a chance to donate ‘useless objects’ and reflect on the energy embedded in their possessions. The article reflects on the intellectual and logistical itinerary taken in the design and communication of a special exhibition on the controversial topic of energy traditions.

Sabine Oetzel reports on an innovative outreach programme for disadvantaged children at the Museum für Strom und Leben (Museum of Electricity and Life) in Recklinghausen, Germany. The challenge was how to bring this group into the museum and get them to engage with a world of ‘dead’ objects and forgotten practices. Rather than being treated as passive visitors, 8–12 year olds were given a chance to handle objects and, through storyboards and plays, make their own journey through the history of energy.

In their conversation piece, Jan Hicks from the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), Manchester, and the film artist Bill Morrison talk about their collaboration on the exhibition Electricity: the spark of life, a joint project by the Wellcome Institute, London, MOSI and Teylers Museum in Haarlem in the Netherlands. In a creative departure from the traditional format, this exhibition included three new artworks specially commissioned for the occasion: John Gerrard’s ‘Frogs in Space’, which reflected on early experiments on bioelectricity; Camille Henrot with a piece on our energy-hungry lifestyles, and Bill Morrison, who looked at networks and connectivities. Morrison pieced together animated sequences from historical films to show the movement of current, its generation and distribution and creation of a network. More generally, Hicks and Morrisons’ conversation can be read as an invitation to reflect on the potential synergies between the aesthetics and archives of energy.

Aesthetic considerations are complemented by the power of stories in the contribution by Elsa Cox and colleagues from the National Museums Scotland. They report on the new Energise gallery and their use of stories to accompany objects such as solar kits, both by the companies producing them and by people using them in Bangladesh. Objects here become pathways into the world of social practices and the stories people tell.

The issue is rounded off with a bibliographic essay in which Hiroki Shin takes us from Lewis Mumford in the 1930s and ideas about energy as a foundation of cultural advancement to recent interest in the role of private energy users and changes in domestic technologies and lifestyles. These pages and references give readers an overview of the changing ways in which energy and culture have been related to each other in the last century. As this article and this special issue makes clear: humanising energy is an on-going endeavour that has never been more urgent.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180901/007