Cabinet of Curiosities
It was Saturday, the Fifteenth day of March in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Fourteen and The Lad hied hence to the Great Wen for the First Anniversary of the Institute of Making, scion of the esteemed University College of the University of London.
As the sun shone and spring peeked shyly, like March hares the inhabitants of the Metropolis were mostly hurrying about their business. They had that characteristic air that seems as though it stems from suppressed hysteria.
Not wishing to appear too eager, he arrived about half an hour after the opening time. The queue was already nearly 100 strong waiting to replace those already within. The majority were families with pre-teen children of both sexes. It took about 45 mins to arrive at the front of the queue, the wait eased by free coffee and both nitrogen-made and conventionally Cadbury’s 99 ice creams. A ‘Generation Y’ passer-by wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with ‘UCL Parkour Club’: disappointingly he was walking and not progressing by somersault or bounding off the buildings.
More intellectual fare was provided to pass the waiting time with one popular project of paper plane folding and flying competition. Another project was a competition to blow the largest bubble-gum bubble.
The creed of the Institute includes strong emphasis on a Maker culture. According to Wikipedia:
‘Maker culture’ emphasises learning-through-doing (constructivism) in a social environment. Maker culture emphasises informal, networked, peer-led, and shared learning motivated by fun and self-fulfilment. Maker culture encourages novel applications of technologies, and the exploration of intersections between traditionally separate domains and ways of working including metal-working, calligraphy, film making, and computer programming.
Advocates of maker culture claim that a greater emphasis on some memes distinguishes the newer “Maker-Culture” from earlier hobbyist learning environments:
It encourages people to make things themselves: frequently using traditional hand or machine tools. A higher consciousness can lead, seems to be the overt belief, to better products than the original artisanal user could achieve. The Lad saw it as a “neo-Arts and Crafts Movement”.
Professor Mark Miodowski and all his student helpers wore a uniform of unpretentious, dark overalls. This may detract a little from efforts to move the making or engineering image, all too common in the media, away from that of the spanner and oily rag or hard hat. Many were female engineers, and obviously and encouragingly, seemed to well out-number the males. A contingent was from the USA, notably speaking using Imperial inches.
Seemingly, with the large lifting platform and the Gantry crane, the whole working space appeared to be an impressively recycled or re-claimed loading bay.
Samples of over a hundred materials were displayed and numbered, nicely lit, along the walls: mostly of simple cubic type forms but also some component parts. There were, deliberately apparently, no naming or data visible for the samples. ‘They’re on the app’ only. It was though OK, possibly even at this stage encouraged, to pick them up and handle them. Certainly it is a Twenty-First Century version of the 17thC Cabinet of Curiosities.
Then there were hands-on experiments. One was BluTack weighting of He filled balloons. Another and very popular, was the chance to make a mould of small keys and the like in thermal resistant and insulating cuttle bone. Into this the helpers poured hot, molten pewter to make for you your own cast metal model.
In the Make Space area hung on the wall was a collection of 50 or more hand tools, without duplicates, hung on the wall. There were saws, files, squares, scribers and mallets. From a distance through the crowd, all seemed to be pristine and unused. But the only vice visible was a woodworking type on a carpenters bench. No sign of a strong metal working vice that would be needed to use most of the tools properly. There were a small number of simple machine tools: a new woodworking lathe, an emery belt machine and some tool-grinding wheels.
Up in the mezzanine level, there were three 3D printers: those devices that, according to many in the media, are going to transform Manufacture and Commerce by way of a new Industrial Revolution. They were making 2cm-3cm plastic red pigs and green frogs. Anything bigger would have taken too long, it was said. These machines seemed, software driven as they are, to sit paradoxically with the hand-making aesthetic of the rest of the Make Space. A sculptor was asking about the possibility of making multi-coloured maquettes. He seemed to conclude though that he had more feel making them by hand.
Judging by the number of people attending, 50:50 adults and children, the occasion must be seen as a success.
The Lad retired to the womb of the Lamb and Flag to revive with ale his weary legs. Then, after admiring not only Boris Bikes but – even more – paramedics on mountain bikes at St Pancras station, he repaired again to the North.