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Of cars and conservation – what museums can teach us about innovation?

If you ever get the chance to visit The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, MI, next to Detroit, you should go.

Founded by Henry Ford in the late 1920s, The Henry Ford – as the museum is called for short – is apparently the largest indoor-outdoor museum in the US. Unfortunately, when we went to the museum in mid-March, its outdoor section was still closed, but even the indoor part was impressive on its own – both in size and as a set of exhibitions. To me it brought home the fact that understanding both language and the past are integral to innovation.

As someone with a history in studying national identities, it did not escape me that the museum – even its name – ties innovation together with characteristically American history and identity. It’s of course not news to anyone that cars are a central part of it, and The Henry Ford’s “Driving America” exhibition is a testament to that. But from the point of view of practical humanities, it was overall cultural character of innovation that stood out to me while wandering around the museum’s exhibitions, including the one centered on “freedom” as a political innovation.

The “Driving America” exhibition shows that a technological invention becomes an innovation only by its context of application – by being used by people in specific societal and cultural settings. The consequences of its uses may be good, or they may be bad, but without this context, an invention is merely a curiosity. The museum as a whole made it clear that an innovation may affect society and societal change directly – take the car and the way it changed people’s ability to move from place to place. But a lot (I would like to say even most!) of its effectiveness is mediated by how we talk about it and through the meanings that get attached to it in our social interactions.

Much of what we take for innovation is a game of language. This is a central claim in The Innovation Delusion, a 2020 book by two historians, Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russel, on our obsession with everything that is new. They make a distinction between the actual innovation, a “process of introducing new things to society”, and innovation-speak. Innovation-speak turns innovation into a hyped-up end in itself, equates technological innovation with inevitable progress, and offers it as a solution for all the problems of the world.

It is clear, Vinsel and Russel say, that new technologies have played a significant role in economic and social change. But it’s equally clear to them that some of the greatest social advancements of the past 200 years have had little to do with technology. In other words, the bus is not the reason why Rosa Parks is a prominent figure for “American innovation”.

The Innovation Delusion was a good companion to my visit at The Henry Ford in another sense as well. The authors claim that because innovation-speak is so prominent – because we over-value the new – we forget the importance of maintenance and care in our everyday lives. Bad maintenance leads to bad things, no matter if it’s a question of water pipes, bridges, or digital software – or history and cultural heritage. But because the work of maintenance is so under-valued and most often also underpaid, it keeps on going neglected. In contrast, the Henry Ford – like countless other museums around the world – does a remarkable job of maintenance and care, not only with its historical automobiles but also through its digital collections, research databases, and conservation services – and even its free educational materials for people like you and me wishing to take care of our family heirlooms and other important artifacts. Much of this maintenance is done by people with experts in the humanities.

In the language of innovation-speak, the humanities with their dusty books and interest in the past are derided as museal. Or they are accused of slowing things down with their textual nitpicking in a culture that values “moving fast and breaking things”. What I want to say with all of this is that both of these “faults” have practical value in terms of actual innovation.

That people trained in humanities don’t take things at face-value but have the tools and techniques to look under the hood (so to speak!) to see through jargon and whatever the current buzzwords are. And to be even more practical – in so far as the effectiveness of innovative solutions depend on mediation of meaning, any aspiring innovators better make sure that they have in their team someone trained in humanities who knows how that works.

What comes to understanding the past. its relation to the present, and how not to kill one or the other – that seems to me a central skill for example in the face of the global loss of biodiversity. Natural sciences and technology alone cannot solve the problem. Humanities – what some call conservation humanities – can bring transformative insights and constructive solutions to the maintenance of biodiversity through conservation policies and practices. In fact, contrary to its sometimes museal reputation, scholarship in the humanities, with its uncomfortable questions about commonly accepted truths and hidden agendas, has the best tools in town to challenge the status quo – in other words, to innovate.

Photo: blickpixel by Pixabay