If you’re looking for an exhibit that can entertain the whole family, you can see "Leonardo: 500 Years Into The Future" at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California until January 4th, 2009. This is the only USA visit for the Leonardo exhibit, which includes over 200 drawings, sculptures, and models based on the works of the engineers and artists who worked in Leonardo’s time.
While the exhibit is called Leonardo, the displays cover many different artists and engineers from the 15th century, including Leonardo’s peers, disciples, and rivals. The exhibit starts outside with a full-size model of the 7.5 meter tall Sforza Horse, which Leonardo designed but never actually made. The 7-year-old girl geeklets I had along couldn’t stop giggling about the obviously anatomically-correct horse. Hey, there’s never a bad time for a quick biology lesson!
Inside the exhibit starts with an engineering section with many working models of machines from the era such as a water-powered saw, ball bearings, and a cam shaft. These models were made artisans in Florence, Italy under the supervision of TheInstitute and Museum of the History of Science there, using materials common to the 15th century.
Unfortunately although these machines are called "working models" they all have big "DO NOT TOUCH" signs on them. But, many of the machines have a smaller metal replica next to them the kids can use. I was a little disappointed to see working models that didn’t actually work. The kids took a few minutes to warm up to this part of the exhibit, but after I related the machines to modern equivalents like cranes, wheels, and cars they became a lot more interested. You can also see facsimiles of Leonardo’s notebooks in this section.
After passing under a life-size replica of Leonardo’s Flying Machine, which never could have actually flown, you move from the engineering section of the exhibit to the artistic section, called "The Mind of Leonardo." This second part focuses on the art of the era and the revolution going on at that time with the creation of more realistic, three-dimensional art that incorporates the idea of shadow, perspective, and color.
The geeklets really enjoyed this section, and I got to do a lot of explaining about art, including Leonard’s studies of muscles and how that influenced his drawings. The perspective art exhibits in particular prompted a lot of questions and we spent a lot of time there. Finally, in the basement at the end of the exhibit there is a workshop section which demonstrates many of the art and engineering principles Leonardo used, and there are two renaissance era paintings on display.
Overall the Leonardo exhibit focuses on education and learning rather than historical artifacts. Most of the items on display are facsimiles or models. That said, it was engaging and entertaining for the kids and for me, and it provided a lot of opportunity to talk to the kids about history, art, and engineering. At the end of our three-hour journey the kids insisted on getting t-shirts and put them on right away, which is a good endorsement of the quality of the show. If you’re in the bay area between now and January, stop by and experience the art and engineering of 500 years ago.