The Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill has a wonderful exhibition entitled “At the Heart of Progress: Coal, Iron, and Steam Since 1750”. The exhibit if built around a collection of engravings and prints from the John P. Eckblad Collection. Eckland has been collecting images of industrial art for over 30 years. The exhibit does a remarkably good job of showing how artists and illustrators have captured both the positive and negative aspects of the Industrial Revolution. The exhibition has a well-written and beautifully illustrated catalog for a cost of $15. If you can’t get to Chapel Hill, you can obtain the catalog from the museum. The catalog does a great job of providing insightful commentary on the forces in play from the early Industrial Revolution through the 20th Century. Take this passage for example:
Coal, iron, and steam power came together in a complicated triangular relationship. As ironworks increased demand for coal, coal mines were dug ever deeper, and the dangers of flooding made pumping apparatus a necessity... Iron demanded coal, coal demanded steam, steam demanded more and better iron, but this circle of progress was soon sending out branches. Coke, the key to iron-smelting with coal, was produced by baking coal in ovens to increase its carbon content by vaporizing other components. The by-product, coal-gas, was soon found to have its own uses as a fuel and a source of light.
The images in the collection follow the advancement of industry into the 20th Century and focus not just on the technology but also on the human side of the drama: the plight of the workers and the conflicting forces between employment and the danger and degradation of the work.
Eckblad seems to be, at heart, a technology optimist. In an introductory statement, he encapsulates the relevance of this historic look back on today’s events:
Today, with our economy and environment under siege, it’s useful to remember that crisis begets invention. When we seem closest to capitulation, the seeds of our next reality have already been sown. And, we need not wonder for long how our new realities will look and feel. Once again, artists will be there to both document and interpret.
Technology, like art, is just another dimension of the human drive to create. That art should interpret technology is only a natural part of our desire to understand the forces that we release with our innate creativity.