Comment »Posted on Thursday 19 February 2009 at 8:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Just A Review

This review originally ran in the most recent issue of Imperial College’s science magazine I, Science. Since we haven’t quite managed to get the mag online yet, I thought I’d reproduce it here:

Upon entering the Science Museum’s Japan Car exhibition, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve wandered in to the wrong room. Visitors are greeted by a display of bonsai trees, the miniature Japanese trees. Don’t worry, you’re in the right place – these were created by artist Seiji Morimae to complement the cars on display. Indeed, each bonsai display contains a small model car, evoking the natural stones typical of the bonsai art form. All very good, but isn’t this the Science Museum?

Moving in to the next room, we find “The view from there”, a short film that artistically explores the urban landscape of modern Japan. Roads weave across the three large screens in a pleasantly relaxing manner, but I couldn’t help feel like I was watching an extended car advert – an impression that would only grow as I walked through the rest of the exhibition.

Leaving the film to its eternal looping, I entered the exhibition proper. The stark white appearance of both the cars and accompanying displays gave the effect of being inside an iPod. Everything oozed style, but in a way that seemed extremely calculated. Looking down at my feet, I spotted the exhibit barriers, and winced. Bamboo-like poles supported by tripods made from chopsticks, clearly intended to evoke Japanese culture, just seemed a little bit crass.

Each of the 14 cars in the exhibit are displayed along side information about the relationship between their design and Japanese culture. It all comes off very slogan-like, with titles such as “One of the Very Best Off-Road Performers” and “Cars Finely Honed for Fuel Efficiency”. I almost expected to be offered zero-percent finance.

Determined to find some actual science content, I pressed on. One car had all of its inner workings laid out for easy viewing – interesting, but It didn’t tell me anything about how the pieces actually fit together to make the car run. Later displays explained the principles of hydrogen fuel cells, but with the information directly above Honda’s latest model, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about the commercial undertones.

One of the last pieces in the exhibition is the Toyota i-REAL, a concept car in the loosest sense of the word. Looking somewhat like a cross between a wheelchair and a motorcycle, its sleek aesthetic instantly reminded me of the film Wall-E. In Pixar’s 2008 animated hit, intrepid robot Wall-E discovers that human beings have been reduced to mega-obese consumers who glide around in hovering wheelchairs very similar in form to the i-REAL. Probably not the image intended by Toyota, but once I’d made the connection I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Understandably the exhibition was put on with the aid of leading Japanese car manufacturers, and a little bit of product placement can be forgiven, but having reached the end in under half an hour it seemed that Japan Car is all product and no exhibition. When you consider the £8 cost of admission, it’s hard to recommend to all but the most devoted petrol-heads or Japan-o-philes. If the exhibition had been put on at the V & A museum, the focus on design and culture might have felt more comfortable, but in the Science Museum I want a little more substance.

Japan Car is open until 19th April 2009 – see the website for details.

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