Yesterday I visited the National Media Museum in Bradford. My dad went to the opening, back in 1983 when it was called the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. He rode on a special train up to Yorkshire along with some of the great and the good of the British Film Industry, and he still uses the souvenir mug they gave everyone that day. The train had its own cinema carriage, which sounds very cool, although 30 years later people watch films on trains without a second thought. Indeed I'm writing this very paragraph on the train home, somewhere between Doncaster and Retford, which just goes to show how far "media" has progressed.
The NMM is a rare National Museum in that it's outside London. Three hours outside by train, which may be why you've never been, although it's much more conveniently located if you live elsewhere. You'll find it in the centre of Bradford, next to the Alhambra theatre, beneath a mysterious tower block labelled 'Ice Skating'. Wednesdays in November ought to be a great time to visit because the museum's going to be quiet... or so I thought. I'd reckoned without the school parties, several of them, whose coaches were lined up outside. One group of teenage girls were wandering around with video equipment, which was way cooler than any school trip I ever went on. That would have been fine, but then there were the primary classes and they swarmed everywhere. I soon discovered that a multimedia gallery where you can't hear the sound is worse than useless, so I escaped and came back mid-afternoon after they'd all left. Perfect.
Starting in the basement, one large gallery tells the story of photography. It's sponsored by Kodak, so you tend to get the history of Kodak cameras and not enough else, but the coverage is impressively comprehensive. One of the oldest exhibits is the first ever photographic negative, or at least a copy of the original which the museum stores safely elsewhere. The most recent is a board installed 10 years ago on which Kodak confidently state that "digital photography's share of the market remains comparatively small". Where are they now, eh? Moving up the building, on the ground floor is a rather good gallery outlining the history of the web, from Arpanet teletype to the internet of things. One cabinet contains a handwritten letter, a board game and a photo album and asks "do you know what any of these objects are?" I almost laughed, but then I remembered the target audience and almost cried.
The TV galleries are in two halves, one about the programmes and one about making them. The former is a bit light, with some classic moments to watch and a fairly small number of supporting facts alongside. More excitingly, to those of us of a certain age, Zippy and George from Rainbow are here, as well as PlaySchool's Humpty, Jemima and two Teds (plus some doll that replaced Hamble). More interesting is the gallery featuring the history of TV, with a century of tubes and screens and cameras plus some of the BBC's old radio mikes. You can also play at being in a TV studio, from appearing in your own drama to playing with greenscreen. I tried reading the news, to an audience of zero, only to find (somewhat disappointingly) that the autocue failed to work and then the playback was entirely interference.
Upstairs is the electronic equivalent of a hall of mirrors, with all sorts of science fun involving lenses and light, plus a camera obscura. There's quite a large section on British children's animation, though a little dated for 21st century youngsters, and not especially animated. And then there's an entire floor devoted to gaming, from Atari to the Xbox, which in reality turns out to be a 'lounge' with arcade games in. I sat down and played Pacman (20p) and Frogger (20p), then realised I'd completely forgotten the keys for Manic Miner on the Spectrum. Again my enjoyment was enhanced by there being absolutely nobody else in the room - I suspect on a normal weekend even Pong is busy.
On floor six is a BFI Mediatheque, like the one on the South Bank, where you can watch archive films and programmes for nothing. I was going to watch something erudite but then spotted the very first episode of Doctor Who on the list so watched that, because it seemed appropriate this month. And then I watched the start of the very first episode of Rainbow I last saw when I was seven, with a man who wasn't Geoffrey teaching a man in a bear suit about shapes. "Yes that's a triangle Bungle, well done."
I stayed at the museum over two hours, so there was obviously plenty to see. There'd have been three floors more if I hadn't turned up "between exhibitions", so it pays to check the timing of your visit carefully. But the whole thing had felt a little lightweight, which I suspect is the fault of YouTube and the internet making most of this stuff available elsewhere. Like I said, media's moved on since 1983, from a one off treat to ubiquitous consumption. So all in all I'd say the NMM's not by itself worth the six hour round trip from London, but definitely worth a visit if you're closer.