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Discovering Steampunk at the Museum of Idaho

When I saw a billboard ad for a Discover Steampunk exhibit, two questions immediately came to mind: When can I go see it? and Why is this in Idaho?

Idaho is known more for its potatoes than for its fantasy or steampunk following. Most interested people drive down directly south to Utah for fantasy-related conventions or events. But Google informed me that the Museum of Idaho jumped at the opportunity to show the Discover Steampunk exhibit, and is a veteran of hosting other exhibits you wouldn’t think you’d see in Idaho. The answer to my question of why host such a niche exhibit in a relatively rural area seemed to be Why not?

In the process of becoming the first museum to host the exhibit, which was created by Bruce Rosenbaum and is part of Imagine Exhibitions’ traveling exhibits, the Museum of Idaho tackled one of the dilemmas of steampunk: how to make the unfamiliar concept accessible to general audiences. Months before the exhibit opened in May 2018, the Museum of Idaho displayed steampunk statues, advertised on billboards, and created events in tandem with the exhibit, such as a steampunk street party and a steampunk ball. They started with steampunk’s dynamic visual presentation and then lured the general public into asking what it was they were looking at.

The exhibit description emphasized the STEAM aspects of steampunk and the inventors of the time period. The educational slant made perfect sense from a museum standpoint—it justified steampunk’s existence, made it useful. But I wasn’t sure that definition would stand up to what I knew and loved about steampunk and its artistic escapism.

I saw the exhibit during its last month in January 2019. It wasn’t just an exhibit to ‘go see.’ It was an interactive experience spanning two floors that greeted you with disjointed mechanical noise and blinking lights. And manikins. Not only did they move, you moved them by pressing buttons or winding gears. Some pieces required multiple people working together to activate them.

Each of the seven galleries of the exhibit had a centerpiece steampunk manikin and honored a past historical figure who embodied the spirit of steampunk. Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells shared space with impactful inventors such as Jan Matzeliger, whose shoe-lasting machine made shoes dramatically easier to afford, and George Eastman, who promoted accessible photography. Artifacts from the time period perched on display, accompanied by detailed information. I took photos of signs explaining things like how airships fly and how early photography evolved.

But what impressed me most was the exhibit’s definition of steampunk. Even to people who create within it, steampunk can be a vague arrangement of ideas. It feels like you can get away with anything as long as you honor some of its central tropes in the process. A sign at the exhibit about the aesthetic did discuss steampunk as “a movement of ideas [that] has a distinctive look that brings these ideas together, and to life.” But then it continued: “For Steampunk makers, the aesthetic often hinges on making what’s typically invisible suddenly appear on the surface. A sleek laptop may be outfitted with brass gears and cogs. The steampunk aesthetic combines time periods and technologies, but also embraces a hands-on approach, and a DIY spirit of figuring, of understanding what’s going on inside.”

I adore this definition, because it lends weight to the possibilities of what steampunk can do without disregarding the aesthetic of it that refuses to be completely practical. Steampunk is an escapist, optimistic concept that takes some of our early technological building blocks and throws in dreams of airships and mechanical wonders to see where they’ll take us.

As far as I can tell, the exhibit left the Museum of Idaho in January 2019 and hasn’t opened since. You can visit the Imagine Exhibitions website and pay to host it, but for the moment it seems that the challenges of such a unique exhibit outweigh the draw of its peculiar blend of art, history, and technology. Personally, the fact that the exhibit happened in the time and place it did and the success it had gives me a lot of innovative techniques to work with when I write or when I recommend a good fantasy book to a patron at my library. The challenges of steampunk and fantasy become incredible assets when you add the why not attitude behind the story of the Discover Steampunk exhibit in Idaho.

Check out the official exhibit video.


Lauren Abbott is Web Mistress for WFC 2020. She is a public librarian, writer, and designer living in Idaho. She loves to travel and has lived in many places, including Utah, Colorado, New Zealand, and Chile.

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