Extreme Textiles Exhibit

Extreme Textiles Exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum


We are living in the golden age of materials science. True, there have been breakthrough ages before. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the rise of steel, a host of new elements and the invention of plastics, but these were mere extensions of natural products. Over the past thirty years a host of new, almost unnatural, materials have appeared. Steel was simply better iron, nylon simply better silk, but what was one to make of Gortex, liquid crystals, carbon fibers, aerogels and Kevlar? More exotic materials are on the horizon with complex laminates, epitaxial assemblies, nanostructures, and electrically active pseudo-materials.

The Extreme Materials exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt gives some taste of these new materials. You can see them and touch them, and even learn a little bit about them. Some, like the woven metals, are beautiful, others, like the lubrication free bearings, fascinating, but ultimately the exhibit was flawed. To us, with our scientific backgrounds, it was a problem of curation. The exhibit was organized about properties and applications, and told too little about the materials themselves. It was as if the Metropolitan Museum reorganized its paintings by dominant color or the number of people represented, rather than by culture, artist and era.

There were woven fabrics, laminates, compounds and composites, but there was no sense of how the materials were formed or how they attained their extreme properties. We could recognize some of the processes, but there was no sense of how or why a heat protection fabric woven of metallic and non-metallic materials was better a more conventional fabric. These new materials are not being discovered wild in rain forest soils like antibiotics, they are being sought and discovered. Much as a Renaissance artist used pigment, perspective and brush texture to represent light, a modern materials designer uses a variety of techniques for discovering and fabricating new forms of matter. The exhibit was a lot of fun, and informative, but it missed this sense of adventure.

One of the most interesting artifacts from a historical point of view was from the early 1960s. It was a prototype woven integrated circuit produced at Fairchild Semiconductor. Transistors were germanium back then, and the modern etched silicon chip was yet aborning. These circuits looked like cloth, with the active components woven into them. It was a fascinating "what if", a glimpse of another possible world. There was also a shock of recognition, for there were woven circuits back in the 1960s. Old fashioned core memories were woven with a woof and a weft and had a magnetizable iron ferrite ring at each interstice. Woven computers are, in a way, more exotic to us than they were forty years ago.

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