LONDON — Less than a century since Karel Čapek coined the word “robot” in his 1921 play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots), our modern automata history is riddled with voids. Ahead of the Robots exhibition now at the Science Museum in London, 1928’s Eric, recognized as the first British robot, was entirely recreated by artist and robot builder Giles Walker. Now he sits proudly, metal teeth bared, among a central gathering of humanoid robots, including Cygan, a 1957 dancing Italian robot who was later left to rust outdoors and is now restored, and an American metal man from between 1950 and 1960 about whom little is known, but whose blinking red light mimicking a beating heart suggests the love put into its design.
As Robots curator Ben Russell told Hyperallergic last year, many early-20th-century automata were “cannibalized for spare parts, lost, neglected, forgotten about, or deliberately scrapped.” For instance, Russell found the “Bipedal Walker” (1987–97), an early walking robot that used 28 artificial muscles in its legs, overlooked in a basement. Yet in its five centuries of history, Robots also has incredible examples of what has survived, such as a tiny 1604 automaton spider from Germany, and an 1800 writing and drawing automaton. Able to sketch four drawings and three poems in English and French, the machine still regularly “performs” at its usual home, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Robots is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which enabled, through its Collecting Cultures program, the Science Museum’s creation of a new robotics collection, with many recent acquisitions on view alongside such loans.
The narrative thread through Robots, from its earliest watchmaking to the eerie animatronic baby that hovers near the entrance, is the human impulse to invent machines in our own image. A Spanish clockwork monk from around 1560 was made to move across a table while piously praying, beating his breast, and raising a crucifix and rosary. In fact, one of the more curious sections of Robots explores how the Catholic Church commissioned many of the oldest automata, using them to simultaneously communicate its power and demonstrate the wonder of biblical stories. A 1700 automaton crucifixion scene from France activated the rolling of Jesus’s head and the dripping of wooden blood, with the Virgin Mary reaching up from the base of the miniature cross.
Along with the ongoing fascination in mechanically replicating our own movements and anatomy, Robots considers how machines have fit into our perception of ourselves. A small articulated iron manikin from the 16th or 17th century was created to instruct bone-setting, and represents an era when machines and their rivets and screws were increasingly being used as analogies for the internal workings of the human body. The emergence of mechanical prosthetic arms and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when people began working as components of machines, further complicated our connections to these innovations.
Much of Robots is static, which may be a bit disappointing to some visitors expecting more interaction in a science museum, yet in its final gallery visitors walk through a hall of moving, talking, acting, and dancing robots. While some appear like novelties, like the verbose “RoboThespian” actor, others have valuable applications, like “Kaspar,” whose gaping eyes are rather scary, but who is designed to engage autistic children in empathetic behavior. The hall is a contrast to the more formal museum displays in the previous rooms, so when “Pepper” from Japan’s Softbank Robotics asked me for a fist-bump, I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to touch its plastic hand and then felt guilty when the robot said its arm was getting tired and gave up — such is the empathy inspired by its gently rounded eyes and face.
Even the non-humanoid robots, such as the two-armed “Baxter” (2015) designed for laboratory use, with six facial expressions on its “face,” have some projection of the human body in their designs. This can be a full tumble into the uncanny valley, though, like with “Kodomoroid,” designed as a Japanese woman with an uneasily twitchy face, who reads the news periodically in the gallery. Robots is quite ambitious with its 500-year span and themes that stretch from pop culture to cutting-edge science, and not all of it feels cohesive. It also would be interesting to have had more behind-the-scenes insight into how the robots’ mechanics and technology work. Nevertheless, what resonates most is how we continue to try to create robots that both help us and reflect us, and how preserving that history adds to our understanding of what it means to be human.
Robots continues through September 3 at the Science Museum (Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London).
Art Problems: How Do I Get a Public Art Commission?
Want to leave a mark on your city or town, but don’t know where to start? Paddy Johnson has some tips.
Rose B. Simpson Embeds Ancestral Histories in Clay
She has taken clay and used it to recall its ancestral roots in Pueblo culture and address the present history of postcolonial recovery and ongoing trauma.
Mondays at Pratt Institute: Weekly Openings of Work by Graduating Artists
Free and open to the public, Pratt Shows celebrate the school’s graduating students. MFA and BFA work on view this spring in Brooklyn, New York.
Quiet Paintings at a Time of Sensory Overload
Where Kim Mikyung’s process suggests an obsessive burrowing into the self, Kim Hyung-dae casts his gaze upward and outward into the sky.
Is the “Free the Nipple” Movement Too White?
Online representations of the activists lean White and thin, creating an image problem for the movement.
LSU School of Art Grants Highest MFA Stipends in the Southern US
With funded assistantships, full tuition waivers, and generous stipends, Louisiana State University helps students lay the groundwork for a successful lifelong art practice.
New “We ❤️ NYC” Campaign Misses the Mark
The recently unveiled design is meant to live alongside the iconic original and specifically address the city, but New Yorkers are not happy.
1,000+ Objects at The Met Linked to Antiquities Smugglers
A report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed hundreds of works once owned by people accused of or convicted of antiquities crimes.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Offers Summer Art and Design Courses Online and On-Campus
Emerging and established artists can choose from over 50 Adult Continuing Education courses at one of the most influential art and design schools in the US.
Lunar Bead Necklace and Asteroid “Emoji” Head to Auction
Christie’s bizarre sale features other space rocks propped up on stands like sculptures.
Scientists Create the First Full Brain Map of a Fly
The achievement is a giant step toward understanding human neural networks.
IDSVA Offers a Non-Studio PhD in Visual Arts: Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory
With no campus, the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts is a truly nomadic institution, existing everywhere our students and faculty are.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Closes Over Climate Protest
The institution shuttered in advance of an action planned for the 33rd anniversary of its infamous art heist.
Remembering the Migrants Who Died in US Detention
Artist Jackie Amézquita will lead a caravan of trucks with the names of the deceased to LA sites representing systems of oppression and solidarity for immigrants.