There is so much to get excited about with the latest blockbuster exhibition at the Science Museum. Robots is the most global and complete exhibition showcasing a unique collection of over 100 robots. The exhibition takes the long view, uncovering 500 years of the history of machines and robotics. Early beginnings take the form of a stunning 16th century articulated manikin to the slightly disturbing-looking automaton monk from 1560 on loan from the Smithsonian Museum, whilst we are brought bang up to date with the RoboThespian built by Engineered Arts in 2016, the first full sized humanoid robot to be commercially produced. He treats us to a bit of singing at the start of the press preview. Hearing ‘The Hills are Alive’ coming out of a robot has to be one of my weirdest museum moments.
As well as the fascinating history and cutting edge tech there is lots for film buffs and time for childhood reminiscing with a section on popular culture. Metropolis and Terminator get a mention, there are also beautiful, brightly coloured toys that are just begging to be played with.
Even if you aren’t a robot geek, there are the big questions to think about and face here too. Which jobs are we happy for robots to take? What is the acceptable face of a robot workforce? I am intrigued but rather freaked out by Baxter, created by Rethink Robotics in 2015, who is learning about the objects laid out on the table in front of him. The world’s first two armed robot designed to work with people, not only does it use six facial expressions to show its state of operation (including surprised and confused). It also shares that information with every other Baxter robot in the world.
It is strange that a Japanese healthcare robot is the one that looks least human. The future of robots as doctors and nurses is perhaps an area that puts us most at unease. But I am very interested in Kaspar from the University of Hertfordshire, the first humanoid robot created for children who have autism. Kaspar helps explore human communication as well as giving children the tools to understand about socially acceptable physical interaction. Not only can Kaspar respond to being tickled he also responds to play deemed too rough. I am invited to pinch his nose and he responds by saying it hurts and covering his face with his hands.
The potential for helping with social communication and speech is fascinating. Kaspar is one of 28 robots currently being used in schools. I find it interesting that a few fellow press view attendees comment that they feel Kaspar is ‘creepy’ looking. I wonder if it is because he is dressed as a child with clothes, wig and baseball cap. If he was without these would he get the same reaction? Or if children saw him whether they would feel the same?
The exhibition gives an excellent chance to really look at the human desire to create machines in our own image. We go from early human forms, like the monk mentioned earlier, to large shiny robots, metal men with colourful eyes and bright lights that look far from human and more futuristic. Some robots are made to look robotic and some made to look human. In particular the life-like animatronic baby and Kodomoroid the communication android provide a disturbing realism and advancement in technology that is pretty mind-blowing.
There are some minor niggles with the exhibition. Some of the display text is unforgivably reflective and hard to read. There are lots of changing light levels to add to the theatre of the experience which can be a bit overwhelming. But I forgive it all for the jewel in the robotic crown, the stunning Silver Swan, dating from 1773 and on show for the first time outside of the Bowes Museum.
Shelia Dixon from the Bowes Museum is on hand and kindly shares with me her sleepless nights of worry about the loan and I can’t imagine the complicated process of preparing the swan for travel. The swan sits on glass rods that rotate to simulate water, they look so incredibly fragile. Sheila tells me of the complications of the loan right down to bringing the display case, in itself an incredibly heavy item. This really is a fantastic example of conservators being essential to the process not just in actual conservation but in moving and re-assembling the swan as well as getting it to work on the day.
The swan is only on show for the first 6 weeks, I can’t recommend highly enough a trip to see it. It will only be performing once a day so do check the details with the Science Museum before you visit.
For me the best part of Robots are the stories behind the creations and that is why Cygan and Eric are my favourites. I have been lucky to follow this story from early beginnings, I met Cygan back in May 2016 and I fell in the love with the 1950s world traveller, romancing women and whisking them round as they stood on his feet.
Eric is a gem, the first crowdfunded campaign undertaken by the museum to resurrect Britain’s first robot. Originally built in 1928 by Captain Richards & A.H. Reffell he sadly got lost in the mists of time (or cannibalised for the creation of new and improved robots). On a quiet evening back in October 2016 I got to visit the museum with a handful of the 861 backers who contributed to the campaign. It was a chance to see artist Giles Walker’s recreation come to life for the first time.
There are lots of questions around museums using crowdfunding campaigns, should museums be asking for money to carry out work that should be part of their day to day remit? It is interesting as Robots is a paid for exhibition why weren’t funds allocated to the re-building of Eric? The original campaign aimed at raising £35,000 and funding finally reached £51,813. The extra money was used to repair Inhka, a mischievous robotic receptionist who greeted visitors to King’s College London. Crowdfunding does allow museums to reach for projects that would be beyond the possibilities of constrained budgets but they have to be carefully applied.
Having spoken to relatives of the original creators of Eric I could see how much it meant to them not only to see Eric resurrected but to share his story with a new generation. It was actually quite an emotional night. This is where crowdfunding has been most successful for me. All 861 backers feel a special connection and pride in seeing Eric as heart and soul of the Science Museum’s new exhibition.
I love the Robots exhibition and I know visitors will too. For all the Silver Swan dazzle and the cutting edge robot tech, it is Cygan and Eric who stand out for me. They put a very human story at the heart and centre of a robotic world.
For ticket prices and opening times please see the website. Robots will be touring to Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh before beginning an international tour.