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A touching display

Materials Library at Tate Modern

Jennifer Rohn 28 January 2007

Suspended disbelief: some displays worked better than others

The science of a material is vital knowledge that underpins the art, craft and mastery of all materials

It’s a simple enough concept: collect examples of every sort of material you can imagine and put them all in one place. If it’s not toxic or virulently radioactive, let people handle it. And while you’re at it, try to illuminate some of the materials science behind these objects – ideally while firing the imagination at the same time.

There are half a dozen materials libraries around the world, some more extensive than others, but the one based in King’s College London is arguably the most state-of-the-art, with more than 500 new and advanced prototype materials and counting. The Library was enshrined in 2003 with a fellowship from the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Directed by Dr. Mark Miodownik, head of the Materials Research Group at KCL, the Library’s curator is Zoe Laughlin, an MA in fine art and a practicing artist, and Martin Conreen, a lecturer of design at Goldsmiths College, lends his expertise.

Make no mistake about it, these librarians are a bit nuts. I saw them as “Wax Lyrical” at last year’s Cheltenham Science Festival cabaret, performing the Beatle’s “Love Me Do” using wax candles as instruments. (Aren’t candles essentially silent, you might ask? Not when you’re holding your bare palm over the flames and shrieking in pain in time and pitch to the music).

Who on earth would be interested in a materials library? Kids of course, who might have heard the terms ‘bronze’ and ‘brass’, or ‘polypropylene’ and ‘polystyrene’, but with no idea what the difference was. Curious adults, young at heart enough to be charmed by tricks of fluorescence or illusions of mass. Artists, bored of the usual media and looking to branch out – and the Library is certainly infiltrating London’s mainstream art world, having exhibited at the Hayward, Tate Modern and the Institute for Contemporary Arts.

Turnout was certainly diverse and brisk when I recently attended the Library’s event “Idea and Object” at the Tate Modern. The idea was to set people loose in the galleries of the newly re-hung permanent collection after hours, where the Library had set up manned stands on topics that would resonate with the art around it. Instead of getting a hand-stamp on entry, the participants were greeted with canapé trays of badges made of various materials (the elegant copper and fluorescent plastic ones snatched up eagerly, the cardboard and felt versions languishing on the trays until the very last, the materials equivalent of low-fat mini-sausages). After a brief speech, we were set free to explore.

Burning issues: ‘Wax Lyrical’ at Cheltenham.

Some displays worked better than others. I preferred the high-tech stuff: an amazing microscopic imaging camera that you could run over your skin and clothing, transforming hairs and fibers into a forest; a table of naturally fluorescent materials with a UV box to view them in; the entire periodic table, captured in individual glass vials; giant balloons filled with various gasses that you could try to weigh down until they floated midway between floor and ceiling.

Other ideas seemed like they should be interesting but fell flat, such as tables filled solely with black materials, or white ones – people picked up the objects obligingly and emitted ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’, but it was hard to get excited by pieces of everyday rubber, plastic, foam or enamel, no matter how color-coded. I felt similarly underwhelmed by a table mimicking the materials used by Joseph Beuys – did it make a difference that I could pick up a pot of rancid fat when I could easily just look at the real thing in the nearby display cases? (And anyway, how could you possibly hope to bottle the energy of Das Rudel, with its two-dozen sleds streaming out of a Volkswagen bus?)

Why were we really there? The accompanying brochure hinted at a deeper motive:

We believe that materials are a language that we all use to communicate not only with each other, but also with the past and the future. The arts are expert in this language of the senses and so it is clear that they need materials libraries as creative tools, much as a novelist needs a traditional library. But here the similarity ends. It makes no sense to talk about the science of words, but the science of a material is vital knowledge that underpins the art, craft and mastery of all materials. So to our mind, a materials library without an interface with the science is like a library without an index, fun but frustrating.

This may all be well and good, but the few staff on hand were too overstretched to speak much about science, and the stands didn’t have much in the way of explanatory text – fun but frustrating indeed. Yet still, there was something very liberating about the experience – that strange feeling you get when you allow yourself to roam freely and just soak up experiences that are nothing like your everyday life, even when they are wholly outside of intellectual context.