Serendipity in Museums

Fulbright New Zealand Quarterly Vol 11, no 1, February 2005, p. 3.

Keywords: Growth & Innovation; Literature and Culture;

A Fullbrighter cannot spend all his or her time reading, writing, attending lectures and formal occasions, and visiting people. My indulgence was to visit the museums and galleries which enrich such cities as Washington and Boston. Entirely for myself you understand, for there was no mention of them in my application to spend time in the US studying its economy in the context of globalisation. (Maybe the visiting is a compensation for childhood deprivation, when they closed the Canterbury Museum for what seemed an eternity.)

Mind you, my economist’s eye sees things which others may not. So I was delighted that George Washington’s farm at Mt Vernon is a late eighteenth century feudal estate. In the course my work I have visited Washington, DC on many occasions, but the Fulbright award gave me the time to take the metro and bus to the farm about an hour north.

I have seen a number of old farm estates in Europe, but although they keep ancient artefacts, they present a modern farm. In the case of America, piety has them trying to recreate Washington’s farm as it was 200 years ago, a task helped by his leaving detailed instructions on how it was to be run when he was (often) away.

He was a ‘scientific’ farmer, experimenting systematically and designing things (not always successfully: the threshing barn doubled the yield, but his fences could not keep all the wild animals out of his gardens). The soils of the farm had been drained by the growing of tobacco over the previous century, and he had to develop a more sustainable farming, based on wheat as an export (they also exported fish from the Potomac which the farm overlooks), and manuring (rather than fertilising for this was pre-industrial economy). There was also much self-sufficiency, making things on-farm we would expect to be made off-farm today. Yet, despite the layers of time, one could still see the social hierarchy, with indenture servants and slaves at the bottom.

I am not critical of Washington as a feudal lord. Rather I was delighted to have such a clear display of an old economy farm estate. It highlighted how the America of revolutionary times was pre-industrial. And yet within a few decades it was transforming into the greatest industrial economy in the world. That was the topic of my 2004 Fulbright lecture, From Feudal Society to Globalized Economic Power.

I also visited the Henry Ford Museum by the Ford Rouge Factory near Detroit. (It was weekend, so I didnt see the car assembly line.) Ford collected an astonishing range of old machines beginning with the Newcombe Steam engine (the first powerhouse of the industrial revolution after water wheels), together with various heritage buildings he relocated in the grounds. The economic eyeopener was Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory which Ford, a close friend, had replicated. Myth has it that at the opening Edison said it was 99.9 percent accurate. A stickler for perfection, Ford bridled. Edison explained that it was much too dust-free.

I had always assumed that Edison was a one-man inventor. But the laboratory consisted of half a dozen buildings which housed a team of glass blowers, chemists, metal workers, carpenters, technical drawers and other craftsmen (not to mention lawyers for patents and bookkeepers to deal with the cash flow). Leaving aside the inherent interest of the exhibit, and the increased respect one has for Edison as a scientist who understood both the theories and materials he was using, here is the first case of the ‘industrialisation’ the process of invention. He came close to achieving his goal to have one major invention every six months and one minor invention every ten days. That is the other end of the US economic success: Mt Vernon and scientific farming; Menlo Park and scientific invention.

There were many other museums which enriched my understanding of America, but pleased dont think it was all work-fun. The Art Galleries I visited were almost all pure recreation, and there was lots of fun-fun in the museums too.

You know how after a long day, walking between exhibits, one mind’s strays, and you have a sense of someone walking beside you. Often it was Senator William Fulbright, whose scheme aims ‘to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.’ I got the impression he did not mind me wasting part of his program’s time wandering around the museums of the United States.