Writing for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums

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The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941 exhibition 1986

I’m processing the Machine Age exhibition records and have come across some really interesting things. In the fall of 1986, a team of Brooklyn Museum staff members, engineers, and art handlers assembled a Davis D-1W airplane in the main lobby of the Brooklyn Museum. Once assembled, the 21 feet long x 30 feet wide x 7 feet tall 1,000 pound plane was suspended from the ceiling. This isn’t what one normally sees when walking into an art museum, but this was a part of the exciting exhibition The Machine Age in America, 1918—1941.

In a letter in the Brooklyn Museum Archive, the curator of Decorative Arts, Dianne Pilgrim thanked the owner of the plane for loaning it to the museum and for flying her around at his aerodrome! You might think that the best part about being a curator is being around art all day, but flying above the Hudson River Valley in a pre-WWII airplane sounds pretty cool too.

The Davis D-1W was built by the Davis Aircraft Co. of Richmond, IN. The model the Brooklyn Museum had for The Machine Age in America had a Warner 125 HP engine of 1929 vintage.  This model was popular with amateur pilots in the “Golden Age” of aircrafts in the late 1920s and 1930s that grew out of Americans’ fascination with popular aviation, beginning with Charles Lindberg’s non-stop flight from New York to Paris. Designed for speed and racing, the Davis D-1W exemplifies the new American proclivity toward the machine aesthetic and frontier-pushing notions of freedom.

The Machine Age in America grew out of The American Renaissance: 1876—1917 exhibition organized by the Decorative Arts department at the Brooklyn Museum 7 years earlier. The curator of both, Dianne Pilgrim had this to say about the exhibition: “The Machine Age in America will explore the dramatic impact the machine had on this country in the inter-war period when, instead of looking to the past for inspiration, American artists looked to the future, effectively putting an end to nineteenth-century historicism.” Other exhibitions had explored European avant-garde traditions that drew inspiration from technology, but this was the first time that a major art museum focused solely on the impact of the machine on art and aesthetics in the United States.