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A Consummate Collector

Alumnus Steven Lubar puts technology in context at the Smithsonian.
December 1, 2004

The technology division’s fifth-floor storage room in the Smithsonian’s 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 technology—everything 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 master’s 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, it’s collecting around the technology, whether it’s the cultural aspects of it or the management aspects or the labor aspects—always to think about technology as a social system,” he says.

Lubar’s 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. It’s a rather bland-looking computer case with a metal arm, and at first it doesn’t 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, it’s better. It’s 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. It’s historically important in itself, he says, but it’s also an excellent illustration of how technologies developed in academia move into industry.

Telling objects’ back stories has been Lubar’s 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.

Sometimes Lubar collected objects solely because of the stories they could tell. Most antique-car buffs wouldn’t imagine saving a Civic, for instance, but Lubar says that he obtained one for America on the Move because of its importance in American history. “Not only does it give you a chance to tell about the rise of Japanese manufacturers, but it also gives you a chance to talk about oil prices and compact cars, a chance to talk about the changes America was going through, the second-car phenomenon,” he says.

So which of today’s technologies does Lubar think might one day end up in the Smithsonian? He says nanotechnologies and microelectromechanical systems probably will, although it will be difficult to display them because of their size. “Fifty years from now, [nanotechnology will] either be a great example of something that changed society, or it’ll be an example of what seemed like a very exciting technology that didn’t go anywhere,” he says. Either way, Lubar says, the museum needs to document it. For now, the Smithsonian is holding off on collecting electric cars, hybrid cars, or fuel-cell-powered vehicles, not to mention most of the very recent advances in computers and cell phones, both of which are difficult to display because different models look so similar, Lubar says. “The art of the curator is always making choices and saying no,” he says.

In Lubar’s current research at Brown University, he continues to examine the curator’s role. He also directs the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization, in addition to heading the new master’s program in public humanities. He says this program examines the vehicles through which the humanities and history reach the public, from museums to public art to documentaries.

Susan Smulyan, a Brown associate professor of American civilization who led the search committee that hired Lubar, says he was chosen for his interesting mix of experience and expertise. “Most people who work in museums and public history have not also done what faculty recognize as traditional research,” she says. Lubar has authored more than 40 articles on the history of technology and public history, and he has published six books, including Legacies: Collecting America’s History at the Smithsonian. “He has a scholarly turn of mind,” says Smulyan.

This scholarly focus is part of the legacy Lubar has left at the Smithsonian. “Steve was a real intellectual steward in pushing the staff in his division to think more broadly about their collections and ask fundamentally different kinds of questions,” says museum specialist Peter Liebhold, who accompanied us on our storage room tour. “It’s much easier to do taxonomy—to collect every one of a series. It’s much harder to think about the stray things you should collect.”
When we reach the final cabinet in the storage area, it’s clear to me that Lubar’s method for contextualizing objects has rubbed off on Liebhold. From the bottom shelf, Liebhold pulls out a twisted hunk of metal painted with an American flag. At first glance, it seems like just another piece of scrap metal. But then Liebhold tells me it came from United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. What a difference context makes.

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