by Cira Brown

“Look closer”, “dig deeper”… if you’re doing that, you’re the type of museum visitor that we love. But how do we foster that level of engagement? “Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Every Day Things”, currently on view at the MIT Museum, aspires to do exactly that. The exhibition showcases seemingly-mundane everyday objects, such as paperclips, matches, and rubberbands, and heralds them as heroes. But this isn’t a show that simply seeks to celebrate various inventors’ ingenuity. Design narratives share the stage with manufacturing processes, historic advertisements and artistic recontextualizations (ranging from ornate sculptures to reconfiguring the object itself).This is an exhibition with themes of consumerism throughout, yet it doesn’t explicitly confront these issues — instead, we examine the objects and their histories free of the associated tensions between sustainability and disposability (almost, at least). These no-frills devices represent the extreme of function over form, yet when you see an array of illuminated clothespins in starbursts, it’s easy to forget their utility for a moment. I enjoy that type of reimagining, and the unstructured and non-linear presentation of these items is a refreshing change of rhythm from standard museum displays. That adage, “design has to work, art doesn’t”, whether true or not, was present in mind throughout the visit.

These objects are literally placed on pedestals. Each is given its own wooden case, which are dispersed throughout the gallery. The contents of the cases vary: panoramas and ornate sculptures from repurposed materials were common, while others had images and videos of artwork, advertisements or manufacturing methods. These wooden boxes are unassuming on the outside and as a visitor, it takes some effort to peer into each scene. Some of the boxes are angled dramatically to amplify this shift in perspective. I think, and maybe I’m postulating here, that the exhibition is structured this way so visitors are compelled to physically “look closer” in hopes that they’ll figuratively do the same in the minds. Instead, I saw many people give many panoramas only a glance, which was unfortunate as the quirky layers of content were hidden from immediate view. I use the term “quirky” sparingly, but this exhibit definitely earned the title. How else could you describe twist ties and condoms and six-pack bottleholders arranged so festively?
So, I want to preface my critique with an affirmation that I do like this exhibit. I like the mash-up of utility and aesthetic and the bizarreness of it all. I think examining these common objects in this way is worthwhile and this reductive way of presenting the complexities of design is interesting. Unfortunately (so so unfortunately), the experience of this show is hindered by its execution. The design of an exhibition about design comes with inherent pressure – what typeface does the graphic designer choose for their personal logo? How should an exhibition about design be designed?
Again, that silly adage – “design has to work, art doesn’t”. The topic that Hidden Heroes tackles has many facets: the history of each invention, biographic data, details about material and manufacture. Additionally, as I described, there’s also an interpretive slant to most of these objects, displayed either within or around the wooden box. There is a lot going on in these discrete areas. The exhibition designers’ strategy to deal with this information overload was to create a single label for each box that contained about paragraph of text. If there was ever a need for visual hierarchy of information, this would be it — however, there is none. Those delightful tidbits of trivia that you want to tell your friends about afterwards — did you know that 70% of the flip-flops washed up on beaches are for the left foot? — are lost in the crowded label copy. This is an exhibition MADE for “Did you know’s?”, stats and brief anecdotes. The specifics of particular objects (early models, old styles of manufacture, etc), when addressed, are displayed far away from the object itself.
Moreover, the physical characteristics of the labels were awkward. Each box had a panel that was angled differently than the one before, and their heights varied from 4 feet to ~1.5 feet off the ground. Knee-length, angled panels, single-spaced with the narrowest margins I’ve ever seen on a museum label — was this meant to be unobtrusive to the visitor? I would have preferred that they abandoned the labels entirely or created a gallery guide — that way the exhibit could have stood on its own as a primarily visual, subjective experience (of which it had tremendous potential).
But this isn’t entirely about the physical characteristics of the labels. What is the objective of this exhibit about objects? As a visual display, it is certainly impressive. For highly motivated visitors, it might provide a contemplative launching point. But as a meaningful exhibition for a large audience, with the intention of conveying the significance of these objects (and, by extension, the craft of design itself), it falls short. This isn’t because it’s not interactive, as I don’t view that as an absolute prerequisite for these type of exhibits. However, if there is no opportunity for interaction, the visual communication strategies used need to be impeccable.
The key difference here is that the panoramas are stylized, not designed. There’s an analogous distinction between display and curation, as well as the early cabinets of curiosities and what our modern museums aspire to be. Interpretation is educational design, and while display is part of the presentation, it’s the exhibit developers job to integrate the content into the wider experience of the exhibition. Meaning making in a museum is an assistive practice.
This is no small task, I know, and I am not trying to undermine or condescend the ambitions associated with this show. I’m critical because I expect more from an exhibit about this topic, as well as for a show featured at the MIT Museum. I should emphasize that I’m not giving it bad marks overall – it’s definitely worth seeing. However, I think those distinctions that I describe need to be emphasized and scrutinized. In what ways could this exhibit have been improved and how can we learn from it? How do we design these meaningful experiences, or at least increase the likelihood they’ll happen?
I do want to direct you to the fairly awesome website that accompanies this exhibit though: It has a nice visual hierarchy, complete with a short “Did You Know?” for each object. If you do nothing else, just click on each vertical bar to hear the sound of each object – it’s weirdly satisfying.
This exhibition is currently on view at the MIT Museum, but hurry! It closes September 27th.