Springfield, Mass., has seen better days. Many industrial cities that boomed during the 19th century are like that. A new exhibit at Springfield Museums turns the timeclock back to the city's Victorian-era glory days and gives that era a bizarre, sci-fi twist.
"Victorian authors and inventors once changed the world. Now we can let them inspire other people," said Bruce Rosenbaum. "We combine past and present, form and function, man and machine."
Rosenbaum is the curator of "Steampunk Springfield: Re-Imagining an Industrial City," now on exhibit. The multi-gallery show — which is in both the art museum and the history museum in the multi-venue complex, in addition to the city's armory — features a variety of steampunk-designed artifacts among the more traditional artistic and historical artifacts in the artspaces.
"I love how you look through this gallery full of classical artwork, plaster casts, traditional statues, kind of fundamental, and then you walk into science fiction," said Rosenbaum. "Kids see the humachines through the door and go running toward it."
The 12 Humachines, designed by Rosenbaum and other artists, are installed in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum. They depict famous authors and inventors who have been turned into the machines they invented or the characters they created.
The Humachine of "The Time Machine" author H.G. Wells is his own time machine. It was essential, Rosenbaum said, to depict Wells as a mannequin. "Human flesh doesn't time-travel well," he said. "If he is to become the machine he has to change."
The Wells Humachine features a 1900s punch-clock from the International Time Recording Company, a Victorian-era barber chair, a flywheel from a foundry and an early 1900s typewriter.
The Jules Verne Humachine — patterned on Leonardo da Vinci's "Vetruvian Man" — turns Verne into the Nautilus sub, using a sextant, periscope and a ship's calling tube. "Frankenstein" author Mary Shelley becomes her own "Modern Prometheus" and George Eastman becomes a camera.
The Isaac Singer Humachine turns the inventor into a sewing machine, with a Rocketeer-style sewing machine jet pack. "He's the best steampunker," Rosenbaum said. "He's able to take the fabric of time and sew it together."
Steampunk is a sub-genre of design that imagines 20th century-style technologies created using 19th-century materials — wood, metal, glass, leather, etc. — and aesthetic techniques, such as elaborate gearworks, flashing lights, exposed tubes and eyepieces.
Rosenbaum, whose whole house in Sharon, Mass., is steampunked-out, is a steampunk designer by trade. He was approached by the museum to create the exhibit. Rosenbaum said he haunts flea markets and antique shops to find his working materials. "Brimfield is my pleasure island," Rosenbaum said, referring to the antiques mecca town in Massachusetts. "I go there three times a year."
Another gallery in the Smith features "Brassy Bridal," an array of steampunk wedding gowns, with complementary jewelry designs. "Steampunk gives you the ability to bling it, and what better day than on a wedding day?" Rosenbaum said.
In the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, many steampunk items are featured in the large lobby focusing on Springfield inventions and historical moments. Charles Dickens — who visited Springfield twice — stands on a balcony surrounded by the heads of the villains of his books. Ted Shawn, founder of Jacob's Pillow, is featured as a mechanical dancing man. There's even a steampunk Cat in the Hat, in honor of legendary Springfielder Dr. Seuss.
Other items at the Wood are scattered throughout the existing exhibits, so strategically placed that it's often difficult to determine what is the historical artifact and what is the steampunk creation. A steampunk parking meter stands between a 1928 Rolls Royce and a 1910 Atlas car. A pair of two domestic robots are perched next to a 1928 Pace-Arrow.
Other steampunk items can be seen in the Springfield Armory National Historic Site.
"STEAMPUNK SPRINGFIELD: REIMAGINING AN INDUSTRIAL CITY" will be at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, both at 21 Edwards St. in Springfield, Mass., until Sept. 28. "Steampunk Springfield Armory: Re-Imagining our Nation's Weaponry" is at the Springfield Armory, 1 Armory St. Hours and admission: www.springfieldmuseums.org