Extending our reach: The interview

Interview by Domenico Di Maio

Week 05

Domenico Di Maio) Hello Matilda, can you please tell our readers about how the idea to study and exhibit tools began?

Matilda McQuaid) The initial idea started with wanting to showcase design objects across the entire Smithsonian Institution’s collection (138 million objects). Most of the other Smithsonian museums don’t look at their collections as examples of design so Cara McCarty and I, as the curators of the exhibition, wanted to highlight this aspect. Also, we wanted to underscore, as part of our reopening, that Cooper Hewitt is part of the Smithsonian, a fact that some people do not realize since we are located in New York.
The idea of design across the Smithsonian obviously had to have more of a focus and what we discovered when visiting the various collections – National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of American History, Freer-Sackler, National Museum of African Art, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, National Postal Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observator—was that the overarching theme of tools connected the various collections. Every museum had an example of a tool.

DDM) How long did it take you to collect enough material for the show?

MMcQ) From beginning to end, the show took us approximately 3 ½ years. As we delved deeper into the subject, we began to think that almost anything could be considered a tool so the difficulty was editing our list to a reasonable number of objects — 175.

DDM) How have these studies evolved over time… from concept to exhibition and finally to book?

MMcQ) Once we decided on the overarching theme of tools in the most general and broadest sense of the word, we selected the objects according to criteria that included aesthetics, function, and innovation. We also wanted to represent cultural diversity and reflect the expansive time period of tools as an essential part of human history. A 1.8 million year old hand axe was the oldest object in the exhibition and a replica of a 3D printer currently on the International Space Station was one of the contemporary tools in the show. Because we were borrowing from 10 Smithsonian museums and research centres, we asked that each curator responsible for a particular object, write about that object in the publication and in the context of tools. This resulted in very different voices and perspectives on tools throughout history.

DDM) How has the use and perception of tools changed over time?

MMcQ) Tools have changed over time because of materials and specialization of tasks, but the essence of the tool as an extension of our body, has not changed. If we think of a telescope as an extension of our eye; a spear as an extension of our arm; and a small fish hook as an extension of our finger; it is easy to relate tools to our body and understand that this is what makes us human.

DDM) Today’s technology is constantly evolving, and often seeks to completely revolutionize an object rather than just improve it. Many tools were built to last a lifetime, but what about the tools of today?

MMcQ) Software, as a tool, will continue to change and offer new ways to do tasks, and this software will ultimately affect the hardware or the container in which the software lives. But I am sure there will always be iconic forms that will remain. The hammer, writing implements, etc. have not changed that much over time and in the future, I’m sure there will be nostalgia for these “old-fashioned tools,” and they will be resuscitated.

DDM) What about the tools of Cooper Hewitt?

MMcQ) Cooper Hewitt contributed quite a few objects to the exhibition and our specialty was in presenting more contemporary objects than our other Smithsonian counterparts.

DDM) Do you believe the tool changes the world, or does the world change the tool?

MMcQ) I think it works both ways. When Paleolithic man started using a hand axe to butcher animals, his diet changed, which transformed his physical attributes as well as his brain. In terms of the world changing a tool, one only has to look at a screwdriver to see how multifunctional it has become. It can open paint can lids, unlock doors and many other tasks that fall outside of its original purpose. People are creative in how they can adapt a tool to create a whole new tool!

DDM) What is your favourite tool from the exhibition and why?

MMcQ) Probably my favourite tool was the gut skin parka, made out of Beluga whale gut by the Yup’ik community in Alaska. Completely waterproof, windproof, and decay proof it was a 19th century version of 21st century Goretex. Its extraordinary beauty belies the ruggedness of the fabric and that it was all hand-stitched.

DDM) Will something more become of the exhibition “Tools: Extending Our Reach”? Are there any other plans for the future?

MMcQ) We will continue to explore the collections of other Smithsonian Institutions, although not necessarily under the theme of tools. It is always exciting to find ways of connecting collections and offering fresh perspectives on what is design.