Hidden Heroes reveals The Genius of Everyday Things in Science Museum show full of wonder

By Jennie Gillions | 11 November 2011
A photo of a female stomach partly covered by a dress made from zips
© Sebastian Errazuriz
Exhibition: Hidden Heroes – The Genius of Everyday Things, Science Museum, London, until June 5 2012

Did you know that there are 189 different patents for coat hangers? Thanks to the Science Museum's delightful new exhibition, celebrating commonplace items most of us couldn’t imagine life without, you do now.

Hidden Heroes turns, in the words of materials science specialist Dr Susan Mossman, "the ordinary into the extraordinary." Her words ring true throughout the space; transported virtually wholesale from the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, there is nothing “ordinary” about this exhibition.

True, the items themselves are uniformly mundane – sticky tape, the pencil and tea bags all make an appearance. However, the methods used to exhibit make them stand out and become special.

Each item is afforded its own bespoke box and its own life story. The Post-it note, visitors are told, came about after a failed experiment to develop a super-strong glue; the frustrated inventor's friend realised the weak glue was perfect for creating temporary page markers in his hymn books.

Burrs caught in his dog’s fur inspired Swiss engineer George de Mestral to invent Velcro. American Earle Dickson developed sticking plaster as a response to "small wounds" his wife incurred around the house. John Joseph Rawlings devised the Rawl Plug to inflict as little damage as possible on the British Museum’s walls.

All these stories give the items a context that is complemented by the display boxes – imaginative, affectionate collections of advertising posters and uses for the items (some more unusual than others).

There is a picture of a gorilla made out of coat hangers, artist Mark Khaisman's Boxer, created entirely from sticky tape, and films.

Vitra succeeded in turning what could have been a drab show into one that is unashamedly arty.

The pencils are arranged in a brightly-coloured fan, tea cups stand in geometric lines and there is a kinky element to the portrait of the girl wrapped in zippers.

Technology lies at its heart, though. Dr Mossman is keen to stress her hope that the exhibition will make visitors look at technology in a new way.

The Science Museum has made very few changes to the original exhibition, but the curatorial team has made it more relevant to a British audience by emphasising, where possible, the British stories behind the inventions.

Physicist Robert Hooke's 17th century experiments with elasticity were instrumental in the development of the paper clip, for example, and Sir Joseph William Swan worked with Thomas Edison to perfect the light bulb. An Englishman also patented the rubber band.

From the convenient to the sanity-saving (babies' dummy) and life-saving (carabiner), the items in this exhibition serve to show us how much we take for granted.

I will never look at my teabags in the same way again, and I defy you to look at the bubble wrap display without itching to pop it.

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