Today, another museum and another lesson in learning. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska, violates all the rules. Pioneer Village celebrates American progress. It's a huge collection of the domestic technology that's transformed us. Twenty acres of washing machines, chuck wagons, barbed wire, telephones, windmills, bicycles -- 350 old cars, 100 old tractors! "Everything used by the average person since 1830," the signs tell us. Why 1830? The signs hint that, after 1830, we left thousands of years of static life and began to progress into the modern age.
New York editor Frederick Schwarz is troubled by all this. After all, implicit rules have grown up around both modern museums and the telling of history. Rule 1: Progress is a bad word. No historian believes in progress. Change, yes! But progress has to be toward something. What've we progressed toward?
Rule 2: Put it all in a modern social context. All this apparent progress took place at the expense of Native Americans, oppressed factory workers, subjugated women, and Afro-American contributions that've been made invisible.
Rule 3: The display of artifacts must be accompanied by learning aids. "There are no videos or sound effects here," says Schwartz, "just great big sheds filled with machines."
Pioneer Village was built by Harold Warp. Warp, a Nebraska farm boy, developed a new kind of plastic window for chicken coops during WW-I. He called it Flex-O-glass. During WW-II he created a whole array of plastic products for home and farm use. Then, in 1948, he heard that his old one-room schoolhouse was for sale. He bought it, says Schwartz. Out of that grew the museum.
Schwartz walks the huge exhibits trying to make sense of them. Then he realizes: The stuff creates its own context. It would do little good to overlay post-modern thinking on all this. Warp has ordered the items to display progress. Progress was the religion of 19th and early 20th-century America. This museum IS what it shows us -- a fading concept of American life.
Schwartz is finally converted in the hall of automobiles. He doesn't even drive a car in New York. Getting to Minden, Nebraska, underlined that point -- you can't GET to Minden without a car. Now he says,
" ... confronted with the [car] collection, I could understand on a visceral level the importance of what I saw. [I was] like a eunuch in a harem ... "
We live in an explained universe, you and I. We explain everything to one another. But if someone tried to explain the context of all this stuff, I doubt we'd understand it any better. In his museum, Warp has shown us his world on his terms. We come away knowing who we were in 19th-century Nebraska, not for having been told -- but for simply having experienced it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Schwartz, F.D., O Pioneers! American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Summer 1994, pp. 18-31.