I awakened this morning to the familiar voice of Susan Stamberg introducing a feature on one of my favorite places in the world – San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique, apparently in danger of closing. As the piece continued it became clear that the possible closure would most likely be temporary, due to a two-year refurb of the building that contains it today, the Cliff House, a turn-of-the century shoreline tourist spot now owned by the National Parks Service.
Just across a plaza there’s another excellent thing, the Camera Obscura, a dark room into which the inverted image of the surrounding seascape and coast is shone using a very old, completely non-powered lens and prism arrangement.
Together, the two venerable survivors of the first part of last century provide an opportunity to experience a bit of time travel: to the turn of the century, on the one hand, and into the renaissance on the other.
There are some other physical locations in the United States where, by some sheltering fortune a relic has survived, hidden from the scouring, buffeting winds of commerce. I believe I’ll initiate an occasional series on ones I know of, or, in many cases, knew of.
Tops on that list is Chicago’s once-wondrous, now sadly diminished, MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY. Featured under construction in the wholly amazing “Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth” by Chris Ware, the incredibly huge building was erected in the 1890s for the World’s Columbian Exposition, used for a few years and left to rot.
Restored in a building campaign intended in part to compete with the New York World’s Fair of 1939, MSI benefited from the commercial failure of the Fair by hiring many exhibit designers, and, I very strongly suspect, by purchasing entire exhibits when the Fair was closed and dismantled in 1941.
When I was a child, great hunks of the museum remained devoted to these paint-cracked and dust-covered displays of differential gear types and such astounding wonders of modernity as varieties of plumbing pipe. These displays often featured hectoring, optimistic all-capital labels earnestly illuminating the inevitable march of progress via raised, wooden Futura-font type.
My personal favorite was the little room off one of the stairs into which one stumbled upon discovering the floor had been faceted in many crazy angled slabs. These slabs simulated random motion, as though the room were being turned and rocked this way and that – architectural cubism!
The impetus for such a wonder of danger and insanity? Why, look out the window! there’s the GIANT HEAD OF PAUL BUNYAN, his 24″ eye-globes rumbling and clacking llleft, then rrright, as he surveys the interior of the little cabin he holds aloft and its’ ever changing cast. (Sadly, this small drawing was the only image or descriptive link I could find on the web commemorating this work of genius.)
Ah, now, that’s what I look for in an educational institution. Propaganda and wonders.
Today, as you can probably tell from the home page of the Museum, such transmissions from our ancestors are largely suppressed in favor of multimedia displays and computer labs.
They still have a bunch of really, profoundly excellent and troubling educational displays, however. Just the sort of thing you’d hope to see in an empire – the booty of war, in the form of a captured world war two U-Boat, and the curious physical features of the underclass (note: sarcasm, irony employed in this sentence) on display in the form of sliced human cadavers, er, “donated” by two persons of African heritage after their deaths in the 1940s, as the museum was opening.
The body slices are in many ways the most fascinating thing in the museum, being of genuine educational value from an anatomical perspective – they’re absolutely fascinating – and, in my opinion, of greater, if offensive, educational value from a socioeconomic perspective. Let’s hope that no one in Chicago ever realizes the education in reality that hundreds of that city’s public school students obtain as they giggle and squawk before the nameless decedents’ imperfectly preserved slabs.
Oh, geez, how could I forget? I picked up my favorite baseball cap of all time here: a green cap with a navy bill and the classic NASA meatball logo direct-embroidered on it. I lost it due to exhaustion brought on from an absurd commute I had at my last job – I live in Seattle, the job was in Scotts Valley, California. I must admit, I still resent the loss.
San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique
Chicago’s MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY
Miscellaneous Chris Ware at Pantheon:
Cut and Paste Paper Toys (scroll down to the bottom of the page).
Amazing Flash Adaptation of the Corrigan Diagram: requires Flash 4