New exhibition considers the human impact of rapid technological change in the 19th century

Thursday 28 Jul 2022

A new exhibition at Leeds City Museum, Living with Machines: Human stories from the industrial age is exploring how rapid changes in technology in the nineteenth century altered life and work in the area.

The exhibition is inspired by the Living with Machines research project, a collaboration between the British Library, The Alan Turing Institute and five partner universities which aims to develop new computational and historical methods for working with library collections at scale.

Opening on Friday (29 July), Living with Machines is the first large-scale exhibition developed in partnership between the British Library and Leeds Museums & Galleries.

Early examples of Leeds machinery, including an enormous textile loom, sit alongside a diverse array of material including newspapers, paintings, workers’ protest ballads, propaganda and football ephemera.

Items such as an early example of fast fashion - still in its original packaging - and the ground-breaking pattern marking machine which inspired hopes of a shorter working day, paint a relatable picture of society as advancing technology changed what it was to live and work in a fast-paced city.

Contemporary responses, offering reflections on the parallels between mechanisation in the 19th century and advances in AI and digital technology – sometimes called “the fourth industrial revolution” – are woven throughout the display.

Mia Ridge, co-curator of Living with Machines, British Library lead for the Living with Machines research project, and digital curator at the British Library, said: “It’s been fascinating to look at the history of mechanisation, at a time when society is once again trying to understand what its new forms - AI, data science, machine learning, algorithms - mean for how we live and work. What’s emerged is that some questions – what should we embrace, what should we rethink? – haven’t changed.

“This exhibition is the result of so many layers of collaboration – between Living with Machines researchers, the British Library, The Alan Turing Institute, the public, and finally, between the British Library and Leeds Museums & Galleries. It’s packed with creative responses to mechanisation, alongside relatable human stories and machines that evoke times of change.”

The Living with Machines research project is a 5-year collaboration between curators, data scientists, linguists, historians, other specialists and the public. Over 2,000 people have contributed to the project via crowdsourcing work, analysing how machines were reported on in historical newspapers from the British Library’s collection. The data they created helped shape the exhibition and future questions of the research project. It is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) via UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund.

Professor Ruth Ahnert, Principal Investigator on the Living with Machines project said: “There has never been a more relevant time to explore the impact of rapid technological change on people and society. The Living with Machines project, from which the exhibition arises, has been collaborative effort between data scientists, humanities scholars and the public – it’s exciting to see this exhibition come together to address many of the questions and topics uncovered in our research.”

Header image: fully restored and working dobby loom early 1900s. (c) sunny bank mills and leeds museums galleries