Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Beauty of The Mundane



One of the things I love about walking around the city is that I can see many things that I would not notice were I in a car or on a bus. I can see neat little alleys, unique plant boxes, interesting doors, window displays, etc . These are often enjoyable things that bring a smile to my face or make me think. I also get to notice bumper stickers on cars, and I have seen some that have stayed with me for a while: “Love Your Neighbor: No Exceptions;” “Support Bacteria; They’re The Only Culture Some Folks Have;” “In Individuals Insanity is Rare. In parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” “Live Widely, Laugh Often, and Love Deeply.” Some are cute, some are funny, and some are inspirational. They can set me off in a direction I was unaware of until coming across them. A few days ago, I saw one that especially intrigued me: “Celebrate mundanity, and the mysterious delight embedded in the banal-Visit The Museum of Everyday Life.” 

This was something right up my alley. As a young kid growing up and now as senior citizen, I was and still am curious about ordinary things and their origins. I am not mechanically minded-I could never invent or design something mechanical to solve a problem. That was my brother. He was the one who built model planes and cars, studied how to repair cars and appliances, and who subsequently had an absolutely amazing 40 year + career as an electrical engineer, both with the School District of Philadelphia and in running his own business. But I have always been interested in how things work; seeing machines and devices and structures do the things they do mystifies and amazes me. To me, infrastructure is what allows societies and cultures to function as they do, and that infrastructure is mostly composed of things we rarely think about or marvel at. But soenone designed them, and these are the keys that make the lives we live possible. They are “the banal”-we don’t notice them unless they break down or are not working. Then they get noticed. So that bumper sticker caught my attention big time. 

Two of my favorite books are by Henry Petroski: The Pencil, and The Evolution of Ordinary Things. Yes; Petroski wrote a 400+ page book on that piece of wood and graphite. In doing so, he examined and asked and answered some incredible questions. How did the pencil start wars, and how did it help change European history?? Why did the American Society of Civil Engineers call the #2 pencil with an eraser attached the most important and most wonderfully designed item of the 20th century? Why was the donation of pencils so important to the recovery of European nations after WWI? It was a fascinating and revelatory book. 

In his second book Petroski examined some other important mechanical inventions and developments in ways that I had not thought about before: Where did the fork come from? Who do some forks have two tines, and others four? How do bridges stay up? Where did velcro come from? Petroski, a professor of engineering, looks at these things as elements of design and invention, but also as facets of cultural beliefs and values. It gave me a new, wider way to look at technological change and development. I believe that cultures and civilizations depend on infrastructure, and one part of infrastructure is often those things that we don’t pay attention to that often influence the way we live the most. So that bumper sticker was calling to a real important part of me, and I had to check out the website of The Museum of Everyday Things.  

I love museums, all types of museums. Yes, I love great and grand art museums and historical museums and science museums. But I also love the small and quirky specialty museum. One of the pleasures of the many trips and travels Penny and I did was discovering new museums: The American Visionary Art Museum and The Great Blacks in Wax museums in Baltimore; the various Smithsonian museums in DC; the small little Civilian Conservation Museum outside of Great Falls, NY; The Colored Girls Museum in Philadelphia; the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May, NJ, and many, many others. The Museum of Everyday Life is one of those smaller, specialty museums that I have come to especially love. It is in a barn-like building in Glover, VT and it is a self-service museum; apparently one can enter when it is open, browse the museum, and then leave, remembering to turn out the lights. I viewed the web version of some past exhibits, one on the match and one on knots. The one on the match looked at the history of the match, and I learned some things about how unsafe matches once were, how Britain was nearly paralyzed by a strike of the girls who made the matches, how the Diamond Match Company discovered a way to make matches that were safe, and then shared that process with other companies rather than filing for an exclusive patent. That was a lot about that one little piece of everyday life.  

The website also has performance spots tied to some of the exhibits, philosophical essays on some of the items on display, and links to some past exhibits, although not each page was working when I first clicked on it. I will visit it more over the next few days, and hopefully all the pages will be up and working. 

The Museum of Everyday Life is a delightful place to check out via the web, and I hope to be able to visit it in person some time when I am up in Vt.  And it reminded me that I had not visited some of my favorite museums on the web in quite some time. Those are trips I will be happily taking over the next few weeks, for museums almost always have things to teach me, show me, and introduce me to. Those can be joyous trips, indeed. 

The Museum of Everyday Life 

The American Visionary Art Musuem 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Power and Magic of the Public Library