Today, another museum and another lesson in
learning. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Pioneer Village in Minden,
Nebraska, violates all the rules. Pioneer Village
celebrates American progress. It's a huge
collection of the domestic technology that's
transformed us. Twenty acres of washing machines,
chuck wagons, barbed wire, telephones, windmills,
bicycles -- 350 old cars, 100 old tractors!
"Everything used by the average person since 1830,"
the signs tell us. Why 1830? The signs hint that,
after 1830, we left thousands of years of static
life and began to progress into the modern age.
New York editor Frederick Schwarz is troubled by
all this. After all, implicit rules have grown up
around both modern museums and the telling of
history. Rule 1: Progress is a bad word. No
historian believes in progress. Change, yes! But
progress has to be toward something. What've we
Rule 2: Put it all in a modern social context. All
this apparent progress took place at the expense of
Native Americans, oppressed factory workers,
subjugated women, and Afro-American contributions
that've been made invisible.
Rule 3: The display of artifacts must be
accompanied by learning aids. "There are no videos
or sound effects here," says Schwartz, "just great
big sheds filled with machines."
Pioneer Village was built by Harold Warp. Warp, a
Nebraska farm boy, developed a new kind of plastic
window for chicken coops during WW-I. He called it
Flex-O-glass. During WW-II he created a whole array
of plastic products for home and farm use. Then, in
1948, he heard that his old one-room schoolhouse
was for sale. He bought it, says Schwartz. Out of
that grew the museum.
Schwartz walks the huge exhibits trying to make
sense of them. Then he realizes: The stuff creates
its own context. It would do little good to overlay
post-modern thinking on all this. Warp has ordered
the items to display progress. Progress was the
religion of 19th and early 20th-century America.
This museum IS what it shows us -- a fading concept
of American life.
Schwartz is finally converted in the hall of
automobiles. He doesn't even drive a car in New
York. Getting to Minden, Nebraska, underlined that
point -- you can't GET to Minden without a car. Now
" ... confronted with the [car] collection, I
could understand on a visceral level the importance
of what I saw. [I was] like a eunuch in a harem
We live in an explained universe, you
and I. We explain everything to one another. But if
someone tried to explain the context of all this
stuff, I doubt we'd understand it any better. In his
museum, Warp has shown us his world on his terms. We
come away knowing who we were in 19th-century
Nebraska, not for having been told -- but for simply
having experienced it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds