Archaeology of Display

Time is the enemy of even the most zealous exhibition fan. Stepping into the time capsule of a historical show never meant to be preserved is an unexpected pleasure. “Mathematica. A World of Numbers … And Beyond” by Ray and Charles Eames outlasted more than six decades. It was originally created for the California Museum of Science and Industry in 1961 where it held the title of the longest running science exhibit when it shut its doors in 1998. Its immense popularity had produced several copies, among others for the New York World’s Fair in 1964. 

A few years ago, the ‘64 copy was installed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, complete with all original display cases. A timeline breaks down mathematical discoveries since the eleven hundreds. Large apparatuses move at the push of a button to illustrate the single surface of a Möbius strip or let you examine the effects of projective geometry. You can watch minimal surfaces appear and disappear in the blink of an eye in a bath of soap suds. 

It was the Eames’ first exhibition design and still today it’s a hidden masterpiece. The 60s were the heyday of infographics. Didactic diagrams and mechanical models sell even the most abstract scientific concepts. The show combines it all: hook, line, and sinker. Knowledge is just the push of a button away. 

But beware of the pitfalls that come with it. Overhead quotes by scientists caution the eager amateur mathematician of the hubris that may befall those who have a way with numbers: “It is a safe rule to apply that, when a mathematical or philosophical author writes with a misty profundity, he is talking nonsense.”

tf.

Review

Mathematica. A World of Numbers … And Beyond, Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan 

USA

since 2016 (created in 1961/64)

concept and design: Ray and Charles Eames