These are a few of my favourite things… in the Living with Machines exhibition

Written by Mia RidgeAugust 17, 2022Comments: 0

The free Living with Machines exhibition was open from July 2022 – January 2023 at Leeds City Museum. It was co-curated by our Co-Investigator Mia Ridge (Digital Curator at the British Library) and John McGoldrick (Curator of Industrial History, Leeds Museums and Galleries). In this post, Mia provides some behind-the-scenes insights during the exhibition’s run…

I’m still finding it hard to believe that our exhibition is open to the public at Leeds City Museum after working on it for so long!

Project Co-Investigator Maja Maricevic first suggested we include an exhibition in the funding proposal that became the Living with Machines project back in 2017 or so, and we began thinking about potential locations in Leeds from early 2019 or so. And I’m so glad we did! Co-curating the exhibition with John and working with other Leeds staff (especially Rachael Dilley) was a joy. As the Credits section on the Exhibition web page shows, we also benefited from support and contributions from a huge range of people at Leeds Museums and Galleries, the British Library and a range of other institutions.

Many of the LwM team came up for the opening ‘private view’ in late July, and I was delighted to hear that they could clearly see how the exhibition reflected the project’s themes and our discussions over the years, even though at first an intensively methods-focused project and an exhibition are two very different things. So how did we do it?

When figuring out what stories we wanted to tell in the exhibition, I went back to the first vision for Living with Machines as a project that sought to understand and document the impact of mechanisation on ordinary lives from about 1780 to 1920. My approach was also shaped by the many conversations about our work with the public via our crowdsourcing projects on the Zooniverse platform. The questions people asked as they helped us find articles about accidents involving machinery not only motivated later tasks defining machines from 19th century newspaper articles, they also gave me some insights into what people expected – or didn’t expect – to find in an exhibition about mechanisation. It also helped me think about how to present stories of resistance, excitement and adaptation to mechanisation in the past so that contemporary resonances with the way society is encountering AI now were clear.

In addition to all the research and discussion around selecting objects and stories, it took a lot of work to bridge the fascinating but abstract work on the project with the family-friendly reading age requirements for our central Leeds venue. I wanted the exhibition to include something to surprise those who already knew a lot about the industrial revolution, while including enough information to help those new to the subject appreciate the stories we were telling.

A few of my favourite things

Installing the ‘Little Stranger’. In a lovely detail I noticed that it’s still threaded for use!

The exhibition includes a lot of artworks because I wanted to show ‘machines’ in context, with the workers who used them, embedded in workshops, homes and factories. (Art UK was invaluable here, as it contains so many works from institutions large and small). It also includes lots of quotes that came from deep dives into the British Newspaper Archive. As I did a lot of my research online, I only got to see most of the objects in-person when they arrived at Leeds City Museum. Here are some of my favourites…

  • Girl at Preston Loom‘ looks a bit twee at first glance, with more attention paid to the machinery than the ‘girl’ herself (and nevermind the dangers of her skirt and scarf around those machines), but this belies the role that women textiles workers in Preston played in striking for better working conditions.
  • Les travaux de la manufacture‘ – a celebration of many parts of the textile making process in gorgeous detail. Printed fabric about printing fabric is beautifully meta.
  • A potato peeler (or scalloper) appears right at the start, where it helps set expectations about the many forms that ‘machines’ take. It’s also right next to an interactive visualisation of crowdsourced data that documents the many things called ’machines’ in 19th century newspapers.
  • The ‘Little Stranger’ domestic sewing machine. If you participated in our ‘what was a machine?’ crowdsourcing task, you’ll know that half the time the answer was ‘a sewing machine’. Ads for sewing machines were incredibly common in newspapers in the 1800s, and thinking about why helped inspire some of our stories around the benefits of mechanisation.
  • The Victorian tricycle represents how small companies responded to the cycling trend by turning their skills and tools to manufacturing bicycles, and it also lets us tell stories about how liberating bicycles were at the time, especially for young, unmarried women: ‘To men the bicycle has been an unquestionable boom. …. To women it has brought new life, wider, freer and more delightful than was dreamt before its coming.’ – Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, 1899
  • A selection of football cards. I just love the idea that modern football is the result of the way the factory system gathered large groups of active young people into workplaces. I knew that the UEFA and FIFA women’s world cups would take place during the exhibition’s run so the loans that represent early women’s teams are really special. If you’re local to Leeds you might also find other familiar names…

I hope this post gives you a sense of some of the rich stories and objects in our exhibition. There’s a fabulous programme of family and adults events around it, so of course I’m biased but it’s well worth a visit!

LwM team absorbed in the loom demonstration - Living with Machines exhibition opening
My Flickr album of photos from the research process

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