ferrous history

The English and Chinese online introductions to the Steel Structure Museum (深圳中国钢铁博物馆) emphasizes that the history of steel structures is an international story of human progress. The English intro reads: “We are the only museum in China themed steel structure, which is sponsored by CSCEC Science and Industry as an CSR project. Open to the public since May 18 “International Museum Day” of 2017, we narrate the story of steel structure both of China and rest of the world chronologically and in order of technical process, and explain steel structures’ advantages.” The Chinese introduction is a bit more specific but makes the same point: 深圳中国钢结构博物馆是中国唯一以钢结构为主题的博物馆,由中建科工集团有限公司举办。以“行业首创、中国一流”为建馆目标,以历史和科技并重为陈列原则,以实物、模型、图片、文字、多媒体等为展示手段,集收集、展览、研究、教育、交流于一体,融科普性、学术性、趣味性、参与性于一身,旨在让观众了解世界钢结构的发展历程、探寻中国钢结构的崛起之路以及感受钢结构文明的气韵,是建筑科普的重要基地和科技交流的重要平台 (in Chinese).

The museum tracks the use of steel as a sign of human developmental progress, which begins in England, is aestheticized in Paris, flourishes in the US and culminates in China. Important but missing from this march of progress are mentions of Stalin and socialist industrialization via centralized planning and concomitant movements like the Great Leap Forward, where steel was the key (以钢为纲 image below).

Nevertheless, the theme itself is enlightening, especially in the context of global restructuring in the post Cold War era. So, here’s what the museum has me thinking:

Although Shenzhen is promoted as a central node in the world’s immaterial economies, it is the density of material structures and overlooked infrastructures that have enabled the city’s unexpected rise. And, of course, the most impressively massive of these structures and infrastructures are steel products as are many of the everyday items that plug us into to social mainframes. In our immediate environment, buildings, the subway, and even pedestrian overpasses have steel frames, while steel literally buttresses the entire logistics industry (massive ports, shipping containers, and lifts, as well as the ships and their anchor chains, for example) as well as the factory assembly lines where consumer goods shipped therein are produced (including but not limited to: refrigerators, dish washers, washing machines, cookers, ovens, computer cabinets, and fancy high-end furniture).

In this narrative, Shenzhen is a beneficiary of the work of men of steel and their cities–Pittsburgh chez USA, Tangshan in China, and (the ever-unmentioned) Magnitogorsk, Russia. However, when we look at the histories of these cities, we discover they were primary sites for the metastasis of the steel industry, which has spread throughout the world through 20th century modernization projects, which were constructed out of iron and steel.

Here’s the uncomfortable rub: Iron makes up 4% of the earth’s crust and is part of the lifeblood of all red-blooded animals, but the ecology of iron and steel has changed the “nature” of the planet through: mining and manufacturing; the use of iron and steel in all major human activities, including mass agriculture and war (all those steely weapons built to destroy industrial environments). Consequently, two of the most interesting exhibits in the museum show up an actual bump in the road to the present and steel buttressed dreams of the future. On the one hand, the museum includes a piece of the steel structure from the world trade center, which China received through a program that distributed remnants of the World Trade Center as artifacts. On the other hand, the museum screens a film (reminiscent of the Jetsons) of glorious urban future, where steel frames and flashy spacesuits buttress 21st century dreams of an intergalactic society.

Impressions of the story of steel as displayed in the Steel Structure Museum, which usefully reminds us that we need to examine how we build the world, even as it ignores the consequences of our ferrous history.

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