Extraordinary Ordinary Things

One of the most meaningful parts of this process has been getting to see each other in person again. I guess the dog days are (somewhat) over. It feels exciting, odd, and rewarding to see how everyone has grown. However, it’s important to remember many have faced loss in the past year and a half. Let’s make amazing things while being kind to one another.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about human connection. I don’t need to reiterate the impact of Covid-19. We see it every day. I only mention it because it’s going to be what drives my project: encouraging interactions in a physical space. Working with the Carnegie Museum of Art’s (CMOA) Extraordinary Ordinary Things exhibit gives us an opportunity to facilitate interactions that we’ve missed over the past year. The big question for me, however, is how do we bring this tried and true method of displaying things — protected by glass, framed on a wall — to the outside world? Re-imagining something so second-nature can be really challenging, but it also has an element of surprise. Perhaps someone didn’t expect a museum pop-up on their way to the store, but now they have a fleeting opportunity to entertain it. But how do we get them to do that?

After listening to Rachel describe with great passion the arduous process of curating this exhibit, I wanted my project to reflect CMOA’s hard work. They put together a beautiful space that reminds viewers of their underlying shared human experience in relation to objects around them. Many of these objects seem mundane, while others demand your attention and completely dazzle you. Regardless of its form, we have all experienced these objects’ functions: a chair, a vase, a plate, a clock, a lamp. The universality of this feeling encourages users to engage with one another while learning about these extraordinary objects.

Seeing the exhibit in person helped narrow my thoughts and prompt some questions. I was no longer staring at these objects on 8.5x11 pieces of paper but rather in context, displayed next to each other, grouped according to theme. Going from the artisan to the manufacturing was particularly interesting especially when you account for how many items we produce on a massive scale in this country…every day! I began to consider these questions:

  • How have American and European capitalist economies affected an object’s making? What have we lost and what have we gained because of manufacturing?
  • How do we define “progress” and who defines it? Does more stuff = good?
  • What are these objects’ stories???
  • How do the categories (makers, designers, disruptors) impact the viewing experience?

The overall collection is incredibly charming and it was inspiring to see the work. I think the most important aspect of the exhibit is the underlying sense of familiarity we feel while looking at these pieces. Designing a space like this is meant to facilitate human connection and Extraordinary Ordinary Things is already doing this quite well. So, where do we come in?

It’s important to remember context and how experiences vary depending on where you are. The museum experience will feel vastly different than a temporary pop-up exhibit. We have an opportunity to engage viewers with our five senses, something that you can’t really do in a museum. How do we make this collection come to life outside these walls as well?

Thomas Jefferson was introduced to the argand lamp in 1784. According to him, the light gave off the equivalent of “six or eight candles.”[1] What made this particular design unique was its sleeve-shaped wick, allowing air to circulate both the center and outside. This steadies the flame and improves air flow.[2] They spread to the middle class, becoming incredibly popular in Europe and America, known mostly for their ornate decor and theatricality.

Left to right: diagram of circular wick, Extraordinary Ordinary Things’ argand lamp (1835).

Every artifact in the exhibit has its own story. It’s my desire to tell these stories because oftentimes we take the “ordinary” for granted. I am also very curious about the progression through time and how that impacted artisans, makers, designers. Around the time of the argand lamp’s arrival, industrialization began to occur in Europe and America:

“In many industries, home-based production and artisan craft traditions gave way to wage labor in larger, machine-powered operations. Industrialization, along with great strides in transportation, drove the growth of U.S. cities and a rapidly expanding market economy” [3].

This re-organization of the economy resulted in the mass-production of everyday objects. Many would argue industrialization abandoned craft in the pursuit of capital gain. Simultaneously, manufacturing allowed more peoples’ needs to be met on a massive scale, creating a sense of universality/shared experiences in relation to the goods produced.

Left to right: workers in the Industrial Revolution, example of mass-production

With all of this is mind, I walked down Craig, Forbes, and Schenley Plaza and considered how people interacted. I tried to imagine what a pop-up exhibit would look like in each environment. What are the limitations? What does each afford to the user? How do people interact differently in these spaces?

Left to right: Craig Street, Schenley Plaza

As I walked down Craig St. I noticed it seemed suited for a more on-the-go experience. Typically, streets like Craig and Murray Avenue are for browsing and seeing what kinds of restaurants/shops occupy the area; they are not necessarily for sitting down and entertaining an event. However, this particular area of Craig St. had different infrastructure such as benches, tables, chairs, enclosed by a brick wall. I saw this as an option.

Schenley Plaza on the other hand felt like more of a collaborative/interactive space. The open grassy area across Carnegie Library is really inviting. When it’s warm, people are playing football, having picnics, and chatting with one another. It’s where you go with your friends, which is why I think it’d be a fun environment to display a pop-up. With the museum right down the street, it could encourage patrons to visit.