Saturday, 20 February 2010
In Praise of Steampunk
Visiting my son in Oxford the other day, I took the opportunity to see both the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the refitted Ashmolean Museum and the exhibition of Steampunk artefacts at the neglected Museum of the History of Science opposite Blackwells Bookshop in Broad Street.
The new Ashmolean is indeed a joy – spacious new galleries and stairways, so many additional objects on display, not to mention excellent breakfasts in its delightful rooftop restaurant. The nucleus of its Pre-Raphaelite collection is that of Thomas Combe, Printer to the University in the 1850s and the first important patron of the young PRB artists. In its attractive green display room this material was being perused silently and intently by an audience that was middle-class and middle-aged (if not older) to the last man and woman. Highlights for me were the Chaucer-decorated wardrobe which Burne-Jones gave to Morris as a wedding present and Charles Allston Collins’s lovely painting ‘Covent Thoughts’.
The Steampunk exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science, by contrast, was consigned to the cramped and dingy basement of the building – a daft curatorial decision if ever there was one. For on the day I visited it was absolutely packed, with people from the whole social and age range (including many children) chattily admiring the weird and wonderful ingenuity of the Victorianised artefacts on display. The contrast of this bustling enthusiasm with the hushed awe of the Pre-Raphaelite Room at the Ashmolean was wholly invigorating.
So it is the bizarre mechanical ingenuity of Steampunk - which is no longer just a minor science-fictional genre but, it seems, on the evidence of this exhibition, a whole emergent sub-culture - it is this extraordinary effort to reimagine the Victorians, to unleash a Victorian and Jules-Vernian technological future which never in fact happened, that is surely where the real energies are in our own current engagement with the nineteenth century. I may still love the hushed devotionalism of ‘Covent Thoughts’, but to my son and his contemporaries it is the fabulously complex goggles and helmets, the peculiar brass chronometers, mechanical animals and whirring robotic arms of Steampunk, that represent an exciting vision of the (neo-)Victorian age; and to which we should, I believe, make Morris’s work responsive too.