The technology divisions fifth-floor storage room in the Smithsonians National Museum of American History is filled with large metal cabinets. The air is cool and dry, and occasionally the unmistakable odor of mothballs swirls up when doors are breached and drawers slid open.The lockers house all sorts of odd remnants that may not normally qualify as technologyeverything from buttons to boots, Ball jars to beer cans. One shelf holds tins of tea and other items that Commodore Matthew Perry brought back from Japan in 1853. Another encloses fanciful ice cream molds.
Steven Lubar 76, curator in the Division of the History of Technology for more than two decades, is giving me a behind-the-scenes tour of this collection before he heads off to become director of a new masters program in public humanities at Brown University. During his tenure, which ended July 1, Lubar helped to decide which technologies the Smithsonian would collect and display, particularly in the areas of industrial machinery, transportation, and robotics. He also was curator or cocurator for 10 major exhibitions, the largest and most recent of which, America on the Move, examines how transportation advances have shaped U.S. history. All told, his work has constituted a large proportion of what visitors have seen at the museum over the last twenty years. In shaping the collection, Lubar has had to develop criteria for choosing one particular technology-related item over another. For example, why acquire a 1977 Honda Civic instead of a flashy classic Corvette? If I left a legacy here, its collecting around the technology, whether its the cultural aspects of it or the management aspects or the labor aspectsalways to think about technology as a social system, he says.
Lubars favorite type of museum narrative has been the trend story, and his choice of objects reflects that. Take, for example, the artifact sitting on a shelf near the door. Its a rather bland-looking computer case with a metal arm, and at first it doesnt seem nearly as interesting as the whaling harpoons in the corner or the early Spam cans and Swanson TV dinners in the next aisle. But to Lubar, its better. Its a robot called PUMA, or Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly, and it was the first widely used electrically powered robot. General Motors funded its development and first employed it on assembly lines, and by the 1980s it was used in a wide variety of functions across industries. Lubar, a mild-mannered man who studied the history of science and engineering at MIT and later at the University of Chicago, says the PUMA is one of the best things he acquired for the Smithsonian. Its historically important in itself, he says, but its also an excellent illustration of how technologies developed in academia move into industry.
Telling objects back stories has been Lubars modus operandi since he began at the Smithsonian. For example, one of his earliest projects was updating the exhibit of an 1830s British-built locomotive. To put it in context, he placed the train on an iron bridge that had been in museum storage. As the updated exhibit explained, the railroad adopted iron bridges for labor, not technological, reasons. When railroads began to compete with transport on canals, canal workers burned the railroads wooden bridges. Lubar used a similar tactic in the current exhibition called Engines of Change, the story of the American Industrial Revolution. There, a pin-making machine, which Lubar says is absolutely my favorite machine in the whole place, is presented along with ideas about division of labor, capitalism, and government-imposed tariffs.