science

London: “Robots” @ the Science Museum

dsc00001“Robots,” at the Science Museum, is one of those rare exhibitions that I rushed out to see the same week it opened.  This was partly because I like robots (though I like animal robots the best), and partly because the Science Museum have been hyping it up for months on their Instagram account, but mostly because the week after it opened was half-term, and I can’t stand a crowd (sometimes when I say that I can’t stand things, I like to go full-on Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain for emphasis). Also, after that unpleasantly overbooked Robot Sex night I talked about last week, I really needed some kind of non-disappointing robot event to lift my spirits.  I’m happy to report that “Robots,” while not quite living up to all the hype, didn’t actually disappoint either.

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Because I was still worried about crowds, it being opening week and all, we booked our tickets the night before for one of the earliest time slots in the morning (it takes a lot to get me out of the house before 10, especially in winter, so I was obviously keen), which meant we were able to stroll right into the exhibit.  I’m glad we did go early, because there was quite a queue built up by the time we left, which was just before noon.  “Robots” costs a very hefty £13.50 (without donation), so I was pleased that we were able to use our National Art Passes to get in for half that (the Science Museum also accepts National Rail 2-for-1s).  The first thing that greeted us when we entered the exhibition proper was a very creepy robot baby that moved eerily like a real baby (something about the fact that it was wearing a safety-pinned towel instead of an actual diaper made it even creepier, like it was a neglected robot baby or something).

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However, once we were past creepy-baby, the exhibit was off to a promising start, with a stroll through the history of robots, via the very earliest forms, including clocks and automata (which I suppose are a form of clockwork too).  There were also some fine early articulated prosthetics made by armourers, and some nifty anatomical wax models (my kind of macabre).

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Unfortunately, then the exhibit briefly moved back into the realm of things that freak me out (admittedly not that hard to do, since I’m terrified of stupid shit like butterflies. Even dead ones), because there were some 16th century religious automata, including a monk that bore more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu that apparently can make his way across a table whilst making praying motions, and a crucifixion scene where Jesus moves his head around and cries tears of blood (fortunately, these things weren’t actually working.  Due to my Catholic upbringing and accidental viewing of a few religiously-themed horror movies, I spent most of my childhood living in fear that one of the Jesuses (Jesi?) on the couple of crucifixes my parents had hanging up would start moving, so this crucifixion automaton would have pretty much been my worst nightmare).

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But after I turned the corner and saw the Silver Swan, all the other automata were forgotten.  I have wanted to see the Silver Swan, which normally resides at the Bowes Museum in County Durham, for years, so I was thrilled it finally came to me.  They still turn it on every day at 2 in Bowes, when it’s there, but I’m not sure if they start it up in this exhibit (I suspect not, because there were no signs indicating that they did), though they did have a video of it in action (here’s one I found, please watch!).  Even without being able to see it move, it is still a thing of beauty, made in 1773, and composed entirely of silver (and glass rods for the water).

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There was an abrupt end to the history of robotics as we entered the hall of 20th and 21st century robots (according to the exhibition guide, actually three separate galleries, but they all flowed together), because after a very brief note about the rise of automated machines in factories, the exhibit sort of just stopped talking about technological developments in order to focus on the robots themselves.  The word robot was first used in print in 1920, in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (as I mentioned in my last post), though it was actually coined by Capek’s brother, who was also a writer.  From the ’20s onward, there seems to have been a real interest in creating humanoid robots (though why this was wasn’t adequately explained), and my absolute favourite in the entire exhibit is from that early period – the large seated fellow on the right, above.  Even though all the other robots had names, he didn’t get one, which made me feel bad for him, and he looked slightly sad, yet sweet (he kind of reminded me of Bert from Sesame Street).

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To represent the more sinister side of robots, there was Eric, a re-creation of the first British robot, built in 1928.  He can apparently walk and talk (as could the original), and I’m sure he means well, but I think if you give a robot pointy metal teeth, you’re just asking for trouble.  There was also a robot from Terminator, though as Marcus said, he wasn’t from one of the “good films.”  Sandwiched between Eric and the only moderately evil-looking Cygan was George, the poor dopey Wallace-esque (of Wallace and Gromit) robot shown at the start of the post (probably my second favourite, and the one I bought in badge form at the gift shop, since there were no “unnamed humanoid robot” badges.  I like my robots derpy, metallic, and nonthreatening, I think). The rest of this section was a bit of a waste of space, as it consisted of a wall of toy robots, with no text, when I think the exhibit could have been better served with a more thorough explanation of why these early robots were made.

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We then proceeded into the world of 21st century robots (who seemed to often have full lips, judging by these two femme-bots).  Apparently, the robot on the right worked at a reception desk at King’s College London from 2003-2015.  Even though I attended King’s from 2008-2009, I have absolutely no recollection of this robot whatsoever (and I’m quite sure I would have noticed and remembered a receptionist bot), and I didn’t get to ask her a question this time either, because her keyboard was being hogged by a small child.

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This section was probably the most construction-oriented of the exhibit, with a display case of robot limbs and brief explanations of how they were made.  But some of the robots were so horrifying that the explanations provided didn’t suffice (is there really an adequate explanation for a robot so terrifying that it makes you make the same face as the guy in Munch’s The Scream when you see it?!). Case in point: the robot on the left, who was meant to show how humans reacted to various facial expressions, but I don’t think you could obtain accurate results from any scientific study where someone was left in a room alone with that robot (plus wouldn’t it have been easier to just show people a video of actual humans making those expressions?).  The one on the right was meant to scan your face and ape your movements (I guess), though he didn’t seem very good at it, so they might as well have given him two eyes instead of making him a scary Cyclops.

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The last part of the hall o’ robots didn’t really provide any information in the captions other than the name of the robot, their country of manufacture, and their capabilities, but most of them were actually working and interacting with visitors, which was pretty neat, and somewhat made up for the lack of info.  Except poor Harry, who never seemed to play his trumpet.  He was the one I was most excited to see in action, and I don’t even think he was turned on (I did find this video when I got home though. He’s part of a quartet!).

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I was also disappointed that Pepper (on the left, above), who the Science Museum showed giving fist bumps on their Instagram, didn’t appear to be doing it in person.  She was talking, but thanks to the horde of people surrounding her (the exhibit wasn’t actually that crowded, but everyone who was there seemed to congregate around the interactive robots), I couldn’t get close enough to hear what she was saying.  No matter, it left an open space in front of Amico, who was another of my favourites, thanks to his expressive eyebrows (what can I say, I am a complete sucker for expressive eyebrows.  I mean, his acting skills (or lack thereof) are not the reason I’m a fan of a young Roger Moore (but it’s not just his raised eyebrow I like…I also can’t resist his taste in knitwear)).

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I’m just going to show you a bunch of photos now (rather sloppily arranged, as is my wont), because there were so many robots, and my commentary on each individual one will get very tiresome, but I don’t want to leave pictures of any good ones out.  They are of varying degrees of creepiness, which seems directly proportional to how human-like a robot was (i.e., the realistic ones were creepiest by far. Those child ones with the big heads are scariest though.  No contest).

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As I’ve said, most of the labels in here didn’t go into detail about the development of the robots or anything, which was probably fine in an exhibit for popular consumption (since I know pretty much nothing about engineering, I certainly didn’t want to read some long, boring technical description), but might disappoint the more technologically-minded.  Although I didn’t care so much about the technical side, I would have appreciated more discussion of the historical aspects, as the exhibit seemed to skip from the 18th to 20th centuries without much explanation of what brought robotics to that point (the initial section on automata was the only one that had a good balance of explanatory text to artefacts).  But I think most people were just there to see a shitload of robots, and on that, the Science Museum certainly delivered.  This certainly made up for my disappointing evening at the British Academy, though it was a little light on content for a £13.50 exhibition, so definitely try to snag yourself a discount.  It’s on until 3 September, so there’s plenty of time to see it, but it appears that the Silver Swan will only be there until April, so maybe best to get there before then.  3.5/5.

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Bistra near Vrhnika, Slovenia: Technical Museum of Slovenia

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I know what you’re probably thinking, “A technical museum, Jessica?!  That seems like a unlikely choice given your distaste for engineering and technology.”  Well, that’s what I thought too when I first heard about this museum, but upon learning they had a collection of Tito’s cars, the shameless gawker in me simply couldn’t resist.  And I’m so glad I went, because this place was awesome!

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The Technical Museum is located in the village of Bistra near Vrhnika (I’m guessing “near Vrhnika” is part of the name, like a Stratford upon Avon situation), about 20 km outside of Ljubljana.  Thus, you’ll be forced to make some complicated arrangement that involves a combination of public transport and a taxi, or, preferably, if you’re lucky enough to have access to a car, drive there, which is what we did.  Of course, this will involve travelling through an absurdly green countryside that best resembles a Bob Ross painting on steroids, which is obviously a real hardship, but we managed.  The museum itself is a sprawling complex made up of various appropriately rustic buildings (actually a former monastery), all set beside a babbling brook and surrounded by lushly rolling hills.  Seriously, even the museums in Slovenia are ridiculously picturesque.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

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Admission was only 4.50 euros, which was so cheap I actually felt guilty, and I found myself stuffing euro coins into a donation box later to make up for it, once I had realised the scale of the museum.  We began our experience in a shed full of cars (none of them Tito’s), which opened onto a courtyard girded by outbuildings.  It would definitely be a good idea to pick up a map at the admissions desk, because the directional signs are in Slovenian, and it’s all too easy to miss things otherwise.

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The museum essentially covers every almost aspect of technology that is historically related to Slovenian life, though the collections seem to peter out somewhere in the 20th century, as there’s not much mention of computers or other modern technology.  Rather, the museum chooses to focus more on traditional occupations, which I find much more interesting anyway.  I don’t think I can even fully discuss all the collections of the museum, which if the map is to be believed, includes eighteen different “departments,” so I’ll just give an overview and mention some of the highlights.

Wooden things!  With moving parts!

Wooden things! With moving parts!

After the first car display, we spent some time admiring the water-powered mill, and various other sawmills that you could pop into and explore.  I enjoyed watching the waterwheel very much, as it’s not really the sort of thing you expect to see next to a museum (and I have to wonder if it was the sort of thing that the Wandle Museum has in mind if they get to move to a new location).  I guess it was a prime example of technology in action.

Waterwheel.  Woot!

Waterwheel. Woot!

Still, it was a rather chilly day (not really by British standards, but I wasn’t expecting it and didn’t have my customary backup jacket and tights in tow), so I was glad enough to enter the cavernous interior of the main building.  (Here’s a tip, keep your ticket handy, as people will actually stamp it at various points in the museum, I suppose because anyone could just wander in from outside otherwise).  There was an eclectic exhibit on the history of washing machines near the entrance, but just beyond (through a door we almost had to force open), the permanent collections awaited.  These included an extensive woodworking exhibit, and fishing and forestry departments.

Surprise!  It's a random moose above a door!

Surprise! It’s a random moose above a door!

My favourite part of the museum was actually another special exhibition, about food and eating habits in Europe (probably because I enjoy food more than technology).  Because honey is an important element of Slovenian cuisine, there was a whole section devoted to just that (though sadly, without samples of different types of honey to taste like you get at the county fair), complete with recipes you could take home with you!  I grabbed a copy of nearly every one (and here’s where I really filled up the donation box), and though I haven’t tried any of them yet, I think the dessert gnocchi with honey and walnuts shows great promise.

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Up until this point, almost everything had an English translation on it, but by the time we got to the hunting and wildlife galleries, I think they putzed out a little bit (not that I blame them, because the place was huge), because everything was only in Slovenian.  Fortunately, I don’t need a translation to appreciate some taxidermy, so it worked out just fine. At the end of the taxidermy section, there was a weird black light tunnel about wolves, which felt like it might be the museum exit, but nope, there was plenty more left to see.

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There was also no shortage of delightful wax figures.

Let’s see, there were still agricultural, textile, and printing departments (where I actually got to write my name on a Braille slate, just like Mary Ingalls), which I probably didn’t spend as much time in as I should have, as we had already been at the museum for half a day and wanted to fit in another museum in the afternoon.  I honestly thought the Technical Museum would only take maybe two hours at most, but I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of things to see and do.  The very last section was the traffic department, which contained, at long last, an entire gallery of Tito’s cars.  (Photography wasn’t allowed in this section, so I have no pictures to show you, much to my chagrin).  Many of them were gifts from other dictators, like Stalin, and were quite normal cars, such as Lincoln Continentals, though they were specially equipped with features like bulletproof glass (a must for the dictator on the move!).  There were also bicycles and motorcycles and things, but I quickly lose interest around cars and related contraptions (at least ones without a chequered past).

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The only complaints I have about this museum relate to Nikola Tesla.  Namely, that I couldn’t get my Tesla fix, because his gallery was shut without explanation.  I realise Tesla was a Serb born in Croatia, so there was no particular reason for a Slovenian museum to have to devote a gallery to him, but the map promised me a Tesla gallery, so I was anticipating it the entire visit.  To add insult to injury, they had this amazing Tesla t-shirt in the gift shop that I wanted to buy for my brother, but it only came in sizes Small, and XXXL. Thwarted yet again by an inexplicable lack of t-shirt sizes!

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I’m going to award the Technical Museum 4.5/5.  The collections were so extensive that there truly was something for everyone, and the setting couldn’t have been lovelier.  It’s a grand day out that I highly recommend if you find yourself in Slovenia!

This was not Jesus and a deer, as I initially thought, but some sort of knight and a stag.

This was not Jesus and a deer, as I initially thought, but some sort of knight and a stag. I think.