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Discovering the Age of Discovery
Leonardo DaVinci was 40, when Columbus set sail in search of a new route to Asia. School books once dramatized the story with sailors fearing an edge to a flat earth. In his notebooks, Leonardo begins to estimate the distance between the spherical earth and its spherical moon.
We think of Columbus navigating nearly by luck. In his notebooks, Leonardo draws refined tools of navigation: clocks, mapmaker's tools and even a telescope. And while Columbus stretched the limits of the Caravel and sailing technology, Leonardo dreams of flying machines.
On September 13th 1992, the Eli Whitney Museum opened Leonardo & the Exploring Mind, an exhibition of drawings and models created to put visitors in touch with Leonardo, Columbus, and the Age of Discovery. Sally Hill and Bill Brown have designed the exhibition. It’s models and approach are original. It’s creators set out to explore the phrase in touch literally. Visitors got their hands wet, tested for strength, dusty with chalk, and reminded of the pleasure of creating things.
We looked at the different types of Leonardo exhibitions, explains Ms Hill, from Montreal's grand study of Leonardo's engineering and architecture to the elegant models circulated by IBM. We realized that there remained a unique opportunity for the Museum: none of these important studies had yet answered Leonardo's challenge to students "trust experience!" We simply followed that instruction. We built models that require the active participation of visitors. Leonardo is the patron of all who prefer learning by experiment.
The Eli Whitney Museum is built by the millstream that powered Whitney's 1798 armory, the first modern American factory. Though educated at Yale, Whitney is remembered for the innovations he made at his workbench. The Museum explores the critical importance of workshop and studio based learning. Leonardo & the Exploring Mind is a direct demonstration of subjects that cannot be taught in the conventional classroom and the power of experiment-based learning.
We examined the tone of the Leonardo studies, adds Hill. We found a tendency toward putting work on pedestals, toward cultural icon-making that occasionally missed the spirit of the notebooks.The drawings and the ideas were often informal, tentative, hypothetical, and sometimes playful. We have worked to establish the tone of roughness, the sense of a great mind in process.Without this direct accessibility, Leonardo simply overwhelms. We have tried to make Leonardo visitor friendly.
The Museum constructed the exhibition with unusual curatorial assistance. The Museum's apprentices constructed the show's architecture and devised many of the interpretations of the Leonardo models. Engineers and machinists from various manufacturers constructed models. Sikorsky reconstructed Leonardo's helicopter. Zygo Corporation, world class manufactures of optics, built the telescope and a replica of Leonardo's lens grinding machine. Model makers from Sargent created locks unlike any their company produced: they built working canal locks. The support has been very generous, says Hill. Something in Leonardo excites inventive people. Companies trace their origins to Leonardo's time. Bearing makers, chain makers, spring makers can find in the notebooks sketches of items that appear in current catalogs. It's uncanny.
The Leonardo project will continue through May 30th, next Spring. Lectures and classes will extend its impact. School groups from all corners of the state will tour the exhibition.The exhibition has several purposes, explains Wm Brown, director of the Whitney Workshop, the Museum's learning laboratory. First it will make real Columbus’ moment and what a rich and diverse intellectual climate drove the Renaissance. Second, it presents a very human Leonardo...mistakes and all. Remember he was a powerful voice of the notion man-a-the-measure. Finally, dreamers and tinkerers will find a powerful friend Leonardo shakes the conventions that we sometimes let confine thinking.