All of the exhibits the Shelburne Museum opened last month are pretty groovy — from vintage snowmobiles to man-stitched quilts to life-size metal elephants — but the one that's arguably the coolest is finally opening this Saturday: "Time Machines: Robots, Rockets and Steampunk."
Along with other members of the media, I got a preview today, and I can vouch for its coolness.
The general idea for "Time Machines," curated by Kory Rogers, is visions of the future ... from the past. And so there is a fantastical replica Time Machine inspired by the H.G. Wells novella and realized, at least on celluloid, in a 1960 movie. There are baby-boomer-nostalgic midcentury toys in the Flash Gordon (see puzzle, right) and Buck Rogers vein. And there are post-Sputnik (1957) items of both Soviet and American origin —from "Star Trek" figures to Apollo 11 memorabilia to Russian posters.
From a private collector in Ohio comes a variety of toy robots, divided into helpful robots and killer robots. The former are colorful, kid-friendly ’bots with rounded shapes and bug eyes; the latter are, of course, menacing and apocalyptic. To understand how our view of technology shifted from optimistic to doomsday, one need only compare cheery little Robby the Robot to techno-macho Robocop.
And then there are the humorous robots in human poses made by Burlington artist John Brickels, who subverts the whole notion of robotics by making them from brown clay.
Steampunk splits the difference between low- and high-tech with a kind of back-to-the-future approach. A whole subculture unto itself, steampunk is a fantastical futurist aesthetic deriving from 19th-century science fiction. Its aficionadoes are given to wearing Victorian-inspired costumes and invent byzantine devices with dubious functions. Such as time traveling. The Shelburne's Webb Gallery devotes a couple of rooms to contraptions made by contemporary steampunk artists, from the animatronic arachnids (one at right) of Christopher Conte to an inexplicable but wonderful time-travel thingy by Burlington metal artist Steve Conant.
In the basement level of the Webb Gallery, curatorial fellow Sara Woodbury has curated an exhibition of paintings and prints from the museum's vast archives. Titled "How Extraordinary! Travel, Novelty and Time in the Permanent Collection," the works consider how 19th-century Americans and Europeans viewed exotic locales — such as China — to which they may or may not have actually journeyed. Several paintings by Albertus Del Orient Browere (circa 1880) depicting scenes imagined from the life of Rip Van Winkle further play with the notion of time "travel."
Look for more extensive commentary on these exhibits in future issues of Seven Days. For now, enjoy the photos, courtesy of the Shelburne Museum and moi.