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At MIT Museum, objects of everyday genius

ANDREAS SÜTTERLIN/COURTESY MIT/Vitra Museum

When the MIT Museum debuts a traveling exhibit next week, you won’t find paintings, sculptures, drawings, or anything else that resembles art.

Instead, “Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things” will feature 36 items people use every day and often take for granted, including light bulbs, paper clips, tin cans, adhesive tape, pencils, and even shipping containers.

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“Hidden Heroes,” which originated in 2010 at the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany, will be at MIT April 13-Sept. 1.

If there is a recurring theme in the exhibition, it is that each item was apparently invented to serve a common need — for light, messaging, food storage, binding, and so on. The items will be displayed with descriptions of their origins.

“I think that’s one of the beautiful things about it. Every single item that will be on display is practical and has a practical use,” says Josephine Patterson, marketing director for the MIT Museum.

Katharina Giese, spokeswoman for the Vitra Design Museum, says the thing her museum appreciated most about the objects in “Hidden Heroes” was their lack of flash and pomp.

“The Hidden Heroes are pure manifestations of their function,” Giese wrote in an e-mail. “They do their job without clamouring for attention. That’s what makes them so appealing. Almost without anyone noticing, they have set standards: in the way that we dress, in the way that we eat, in our means of transportation, and in our daily work.”

Giese pointed to the invention of the pencil — by Nicolas Jacques Conté, in the late 18th century — as an example of the democratization of writing, at a time when the masses, especially the poor, had little access to writing lessons or utensils.

There’s even irony in the pencil’s predecessor, a simple graphite deposit discovered in the ground in Cumberland, a rural county in northwest Britain, in the 16th century. Before inventors like Conté figured out how to package that graphite, local farmers apparently used chunks of it to mark and identify their sheep.

Tin cans, also in the show, “bear witness to the industrialization of food processing,” Giese says.

As described in “Hidden Heroes,” tin cans were created as a result of a competition held by Napoleon that offered prize money to whoever invented the best way to preserve food for his troops while they fought far from home.

The Frenchman Nicolas Appert won the contest in 1809 using glass jars to vacuum-seal food and prevent it from spoiling. His invention was later modified to work with metal containers, beginning with British merchant Peter Durand’s predecessor to tin foil, thin sheets of tin-coated iron, which he used to preserve food. King George III gave Durand a patent for his foil food preserver in 1810.

ANDREAS SÜTTERLIN/COURTESY MIT/Vitra Museum

Gary Van Zante, the MIT Museum curator who brought “Hidden Heroes” to the States, says the exhibition is increasingly exploring design-related subject matter that is important to people in Greater Boston.

“The exhibition is a fresh view of the role of design in everyday life, and that in particular appealed to me as I felt it would appeal to our visitors,” Van Zante said. “Our community in particular is interested in practical solutions to problems and design has an instrumental role in problem solving.”

One of Van Zante’s favorite items in the exhibition, and best examples for “practical simplicity, he says, is the paper clip.

Samuel Fay invented the first known paper clip in 1867, to fasten together tickets. But William D. Middlebrook of Waterbury, Conn., patented the modern paper clip in 1899. Middlebrook is also credited with inventing a machine that manufactured paper clips.

“Who knows the story of the first paper clip?” Van Zante asked. “But who hasn’t used one?”

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@
globe.com.
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