A clarinet-playing android and an early microscope are part of a new exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Called "Devices of Wonder," the collection features scientific instruments and natural specimens that show the intersection of art and technology.
An art professor at the University of Chicago, Barbara Stafford, points out a Victorian-era android with a brass handle on its back and an intricate collection of gears and levers inside. The device was made in the Netherlands in 1838 and later became a sensation in New York and Boston as it performed four pieces of classical music on a 32 note clarinet.
Some artifacts in the exhibit are several hundred years older than the mechanical musician, as Professor Stafford explains. "We really begin in what we call the early modern period, that is the late Renaissance, the 16th century. And the core piece of the exhibition, the one that you see when you first walk in and the one that continually resonates with the other objects, is an early modern cabinet of wonders," he says.
The 17th century cabinet from Augsburg, Germany, is made of wood, ivory, marble, semiprecious stones, enamel, and tortoise shell. Its carvings and its contents were a compendium of knowledge, a kind of visual encyclopedia. The cabinet's drawers would hold specimens of the natural world, from seashells to plants and minerals. These things became what the curator calls "objects of knowledge."
There are scientific textbooks in the exhibit, which are themselves works of art, as well as instruments for navigation and others used for drawing scientific sketches.
The curator of photographs at the Getty Research Institute, Frances Terpak, says objects in the collection have changed the way that people understand the world and the events that continue to change it. "Last month, Prime Minister Blair from England was quoted in the New York Times as saying the world has changed, the kaleidoscope has been shaken, and a new world order is going to be put into place. And in fact, that's exactly what we're dealing with here in this exhibition, the forgotten kinds of objects in the world, like kaleidoscopes, microscopes, or even pieces of furniture that have affected us in the way we experience the world," he says.
The technology on display was more than functional, but is it art or engineering and science? Barbara Stafford says it is all of these. "You see, we don't make those distinctions. We are very proud of that. We think, actually, this is artful science and scientific art. In other words, you'll see many of these pieces, like a wonderful mid-18th century microscope owned by the Getty (Museum), is really a piece of sculpture, if you look at it. We think those are artificial distinctions," she says.
The artful science in the exhibit includes an early board game that uses the theme of dolphins and other marine life, as well paintings, sculptures, and toys that play with the viewer's sense of perspective. "When you go and see it, you will see that certain things are at a child's level, little multiplying spectacles. Even the height or scale of things ranges from the child to the adult. But each person, whether you are a child, whether you are a Gen-Xer (age 20s and 30s), whether you are an engineer, whether you are an artist, because the objects are so provocative and so complex, I think they will appeal to everyone, no matter who you are," she says.
Parts of the Getty Museum exhibit can be seen on the internet at getty.edu.
The exhibit "Devices of Wonder" will be on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles through February 3.