The (Un)Natural History of Overlooked Things


When creating exhibits, we have to think about big questions such as what kind of stories to tell and how to tell them, but when it comes time to actually put the exhibit together, we have to descend from such heights to deal with an endless stream of mundane details. I find that the details can sometime lead to the grandest views.

Here is an example: We needed additional wall space for American Tapestry Biennial 8, so I built some lightweight temporary walls to stand in the middle of the galleries. Each wall was made up of two 4” x 8” sections. The difficult part of the project was figuring out how to connect the sections together. We had to assemble the walls after they were painted, so I couldn’t put any new holes in the faces, and whatever hardware I used had to be hidden from visitors on both sides of the wall. It was a tiny problem, but our plan for installing the show depended on finding a solution.

A field guide for hardware

I turned to my favorite industrial catalog for the answer. This catalog is one of the master works in the study of modern material culture. Its 3,500 bible-thin pages survey the deepest, most hidden and overlooked parts of the modern world. It lists many of the things that you see everyday but never notice. Shopping cart wheels, exit signs, spigot handles, motors for automatic sliding doors, and the rooftop ventilators all appear in the catalog. A reader can also find things that only specialists ever see, like static control mats for people working on delicate electronics, tools to measure air velocity in air conditioning systems, pneumatic-to-hydraulic pressure converters, or hand trucks for moving 55-gallon barrels. The mind-boggling diversity of the catalog reminds me how much stuff is involved in keeping our modern world going. It also reminds me of all the hidden work needed to design, make, and install all these things. During my whole life, I will only order a tiny fraction of what appears in this catalog.

A family of ratchets

The industrial supply catalog is more than a place to buy esoteric things. It is a field guide to the artificial world that would make Carl Linneaus (who gave plants and animals scientific Latin names in the 18th century) and Roger Peterson (who wrote one of the first bird watcher’s field guides in the early 20th century) proud. The catalog gives a wealth of information about each item listed. One can find the size, shape, and behavior of every imaginable kind of bearing, bolt, or screw. The catalog describes the properties of 15 kinds of rubber, 35 thermoplastics, and 102 metals. Like the classic works of natural history, this un-natural history arranges its objects into a great taxonomic system of kingdoms, orders, classes, and species. A particular screw used in a certain display case in the museum is classified by the following chain: Fastener > wood screw > pan-head > center-pin torx drive > No. 8 > 1 1/4” in. Any piece of hardware, any material, and nearly any man-made object fits somewhere in the catalog’s organizational tree. While looking for the solution to my minor hardware problem, the whole manufactured world seemed briefly to come together in a single coherent whole.

Common draw latches

Eventually, I found some hardware that might solve my wall problem. I read about a kind of closure called a “draw latch” that seemed like a good possibility. As always there are many options: some look like the latches on ski boots and others like window latches. Some have hooks; others have rings, keys, or ratchets. Like bird’s beaks, each is evolved for a specific use, and thrives in a certain niche. There are solutions as exotic as a bird-of paradise, and others as common as crows. It was hard to pick a single solution. I eventually moved further and further down the evolutionary chain, and settled on the simplest possible solution. I ended up ordering simple perforated steel plates, which I screwed across the tops and bottoms of each pair of walls. Although I didn’t end up choosing a stainless steel snap slide latch with nonthreaded studs, I’m glad to know that such a thing exists. Truly, we live in a lush world of overlooked things.

Dave Unger
Director of Interpretation

Leave a Reply