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Kew Bridge Steam Museum exhibition: The Greatest Steampunk Exhibition

A little while ago, I went to see The Greatest Steampunk Exhibition at Kew Bridge Steam Museum (KBSM). Set within galleries of steam pumping engines, steampunk art, costumes, jewellery, and inventive machinery and guns, not to mention an ornate bed, seem curiously at home. Steampunk embraces science and technology, both Victorian and contemporary, while adding its own, very distinctive, perspective of alternate history.

The exhibition started in the ‘Water for Life Gallery’. Complex works akin to those seen at the Steampunk exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science (MHS) in Oxford in 2009-2010, stand in tall showcases. Pumping engines sit atop masks, which sit atop steam powered goggles. Goggles feature large, be they brass, leather and fur or a combination of the two – all materials which are staples for steampunk. Highlights include ‘Darth Vapour’ and a steampunked Borg, both heads created by Thadeus Tinker – the chair of the Victorian Steampunk Society and organiser of the Asylum. These objects ‘hint at how classic sci-fi could have been’. Across from the Borg is the ‘Universum Steampunk Hot-air Engine’, created by Jos de Vink and the ‘The Cathedral Steampunk Hot-ari Engine’, both amazing constructions in brass powered by candles.

Clockwork insects and jewellery incorporating eyes demonstrate the complexity of steampunk visual and material culture and these intricate objects contrast with the scale of the Thunderbuss Sonic Hunting Rifle, which hints at both the past and future. Faux taxidermy and curios demonstrate how something that was popular in Victorian times is still popular with steampunks. The sign suggests that you can make your won and a section is set aside to create your own steampunk material culture – so engaging the audience with one of the main steampunk aesthetics – do it yourself.

Guns continue to feature in the next cabinet, drawing on transistor valves for inspiration and materials. Herr Doktor has produced yet another fine piece – The Lady Raygun, described as ‘peerless’ and ‘deadly’. Complete with attachments in a beautiful lined wooden box, this is a gift that any lady would treasure! Next to this, ‘The Time Machine Steampunk Hot Air Engine’ is almost astronomical in its appearance and yet it demonstrates its links to Wells’ Time Machine.

Interspersed around the museum, almost forming part of the permanent collection and looking quite at ease, steampunk art and material culture both complements and contrasts with the large beam engines. A pith helmet and goggles sits within a diver / Robbie the Robot style headpiece. On the other side of the 90-inch Cornish Beam Engine stands a figure that resembles a diver, but is in fact an airman, as the poster by it exclaims:

‘Protect the Skies. Join the Royal Air Patrol. Enlist Today’.

Combining Latin with WWII American airmen’s jackets, the logo of a space ship has beneath it Noli Hoc Domi Conari, while the costume combines an airman’s jacket, sheepskin collar and jet pack complete with space age helmet.

Next to the 100-inch and 90-inch Engines stands the ‘Bomb Disposal Specialist, Her Majesty’s Engineers’. Another piece by Thadeus Tinker, he links a steampunk inspired outfit to the very real dangers currently being faced by soldiers in Afghanistan. Next to the Boulton and Watt Engine, a lady’s steampunk day outfit in blue tartan and lace combines ‘steam’ from Victorian times and ‘punk from the 1970s’. It embodies the term steampunk. Designed by Lady Elsie and with homage to Vivian Westwood, the aim was to make a piece of ‘wearable steampunk art’. In contrast, the ‘Gentleman’s Working Jacket (formal), Working Trouser and Sub-Formal Hat’ by ‘Second Coming, Ms D’s Costume Empire’ explores themes of ‘make do and mend’, historical costumes and recycling. The obligatory eyeglass completes the work.

A steampunk bed on cogs and wheels with crystals, gauges and dragonflies stands opposite these costumes. Made in the museum’s forge by Shelley Thomas, this is a beautiful construction in various metals including brass, with deep red silk. It both fitted in, yet stood in contrast to the surrounding engines.

Alongside to the shop, we find more costumes and artwork. A gentleman’s burgundy frock coat, a lady’s dress complete with Union Jack, stunning wigs, hats and toys, original artwork and, in a tribute to another sci-fi series, K9. Here we find the ‘Basilica Steampunk Hot-air engine, an amazing tower to explore which are very reminiscent of the computer games Myst and Riven. Nearby, in a twist on road safety, a poster exhorts us to ‘kill your velocity! Not an air-kracken!’

The exhibition ends with a steampistol ‘by appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales’, Davros Steamlord and a dalak – suitably steampunked by Mr Peter Harrow Esq and Herr Doktor.

The Kew Bridge Steam Museum is an interesting place to have The Greatest Steampunk Exhibition. Inspired by the exhibition Steampunk at the Museum of the History of Science (MHS) in Oxford, the KBSM exhibition sets the objects in and around the permanent exhibition, juxtaposing steampunk with steam and engines. While the exhibits at MHS were, at least in part, inspired by the collections there, it was less clear where the link to the inspiration came from with this exhibition. The exhibits drew on the same type of metals and many were machine-like in construction, but there was less of a direct link that was obvious, apart from the bed, which was made in the forge at the museum. That said, steampunk derives its roots from Victorian era machines and technology, usually clockwork or steam powered and so the setting is very fitting, as was the MHS.

While the museum calls this ‘the greatest steampunk exhibition’, it is relatively small as exhibitions go, though larger than that at MHS. The range is larger – including costumes, a bed, wigs, hats and artwork posters, in addition to science and sci-fi inspired creations. The Borg rubs shoulders with Star Wars and Doctor Who and there is a healthy amount of goggles and guns thrown in to satisfy all types of steampunks. My personal favourites included the complex water tower construction that looked like it had stepped straight out of Myst or Riven, and the posters exhorting people to join the air corps or to reduce your speed and mind the air kracken. These are all indications that, as well as being inventive, steampunks have a healthy and slightly off-left-side sense of humour – long may they continue!

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