diamond geezer

 Thursday, December 04, 2014

Back in October the Queen nipped down to the Science Museum to send her first tweet. More precisely she was there to open a new gallery - The Information Age - which tells the story of communication technology over the last couple of centuries. I thought I'd wait a bit for the fuss to die down and then take a look. And the good news? The fuss has very much died down.

Last time I visited the Science Museum, the entrance was primed for security checks. "Can I see your bag, sir? Thank you." Now the security guards hover unobtrusively near the main door, and a different kind of barrier greets visitors. To gain access to the museum you have to aim for one of four-or-so staffed desks, each a mini-chicane, potentially with queues at busy times. "It is still free to get in, isn't it?" I asked, surprised that entry required direct human interaction. The lady at the desk assured me that entry was still free, and that the desks had been installed "just in case you wanted to make a donation." That'd be a suggested donation of £5, according to the adjacent sign, plus of course I had the opportunity to purchase tickets for any of the special exhibitions or attractions within. I bet this approach shames a fair proportion of visitors into coughing up, especially those who don't speak the language very well, but as a London taxpayer I felt perfectly entitled to walk straight through. Security Theatre has been replaced by Commercial Theatre, it's the new paradigm.

To find The Information Age you'll need to walk along the building a bit. Try that on the ground floor and you get to walk past lots of incredible exhibits, but take the lift to the second straight away and you'll enter one of the museum's quieter backwater galleries. It's the Mathematics and Computing gallery, home to E.R.N.I.E. and Babbage's Difference Engine, both pioneering devices in their own way. There's an archaic feel to the displays, which include slide rules, Klein bottles and Spirograph drawings, as well as several cabinets of very colourful cardboard polyhedra. A lot of the displays concentrate on curves and surfaces, and hence calculus, explained with a clarity that's unexpectedly good at bringing complex concepts to life. But come quickly, because plans are afoot to transform the gallery into a shiny £5m space with a Zaha Hadid roof based on patterns of aerodynamic turbulence, with a 1929 aircraft as the star exhibit. The end result could be fantastic, or it could be a lot of screens telling stories - a deliberate shift in emphasis from pure to applied. Whatever, the Maths gallery revamp starts next year, so if you want to see what came before, come soon.

Which brings us The Information Age. This fills a mighty big gallery, or rather it fills the space around the edge because there's a lot of circulation space through the middle. The enormous object in the centre which looks like a clothes drier is an Aerial Tuning Inductor, a hexagonal low-frequency coil rescued from the wireless station at Rugby in 2003. The remainder of the gallery is divided into six clusters, each devoted to a different type of communication technology from Cable to the Web. The oldest inventions are the telegraph systems of the early Victorian era and examples of the undersea cables that transformed international communications - it's refreshing to see such artefacts still celebrated. The Radio section includes heritage BBC microphones and transmitters, as you'd expect, but also intriguing audio visuals explaining how the sinking of the Titanic and traders on the New York Stock Exchange drove the technology forward.

Are there buttons to press? Hell yes, and screens to touch, and graphics to watch, if that helps you linger longer. It helped me. I even stayed to watch a five minute video about digital switchover, that's how up-to-date this place is, while one of the gallery's cleaners stood entranced in front of a cabinet recollecting TV's breakthrough at the Coronation. The curators have chosen well, using footage from an international 1967 simulcast to represent satellite broadcasting, and a phone shack from Cameroon to show how mobiles have brought a new kind of African independence. They've even got Sir Tim Berners Lee to explain how the internet works, and have on display the computer on which he invented the World Wide Web at CERN two decades ago. You'd not be reading this sentence right now without it.

I'm not quite sure why the gallery's designers went to all the effort of creating an upstairs. An elliptical mezzanine passes through all six sections but adds very little, other than a good view, and yet the museum's gone to considerable expense in providing two special lifts to make this upper level accessible. I completely missed the 40 interactive light beacons placed around the gallery by an artist, because that requires an app on your phone, and I never download apps in public unless very firmly directly to so. And then there was the punched card reader exhibit.

Several forms of communication are represented in the exhibition by a moulded interactive panel. Tap a morse key, tune a crystal set, route a telephone conversation, that kind of thing. The punched card reader exhibit invites you to punch some virtual holes in a virtual card which is then sorted in a variety of virtual ways before your very eyes. And it was while this program was completing that I realised I'd seen an older punched card reader exhibit in the maths and computing gallery nextdoor. This had featured a complete 1930s workroom, a large-scale mechanical reader and some Babbage-era punched card prototypes, amongst other related ephemera. There was even a complete history of the punched card and its role in driving forward 20th century business profitability, this hand-assembled along one complete wall panel using photos, diagrams, graph paper and inkjet-printed labels. And it struck me that this labour of love isn't going to survive the gallery's transformation, and that instead the humble card reader may be represented in perpetuity by a simulation and a few detail-light paragraphs.

The modern way with exhibitions seems to be not to overload, which means fewer concrete objects and more virtual descriptions. And in that respect The Information Age is a perfect exemplification of itself, which is both precisely how it should be, and a damned shame.

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