Go back to article: Information age? The challenges of displaying information and communication technologies

Displaying hidden infrastructure and the non-material nature of information

Another challenge for Information Age was that of displaying the physical and non-physical nature of information. Museums capture and display the material evidence of information and communication technologies – the machines that enable us to transfer, store and manipulate information. It is through the computers, books, microfiche, floppy disks and punched cards that information is stored and passed between people; the materiality of the information gives it a legacy. But by focusing on the more accessible and recognisable materiality of information, museums tend to concentrate on the consumption side of information technologies. We display the devices that consumers used or had access to; those that may evoke nostalgia for the objects of the past. We often fail to represent the hidden or more mundane infrastructure technologies. This may be because they are more difficult to understand, or as hidden technologies may relate little to visitors' lived experience, but they are just as vital for enabling information to be transferred. They form a central part of the invisible network of transmitters, masts, routers and copper and fibre-optic cables that wrap around our world. The geography and ownership of such infrastructures says as much about the purpose and practice of the information and communication technologies as the more familiar end user devices.

It was for this reason that the Information Age team tried to ensure that we included many representative examples of technologies that would normally have been concealed from the end users. The cluster of exhibits on The Cable included an exhibit facade that was covered in many different forms of cable, from early telegraph cables surrounded by gutta percha to telephone wires and thin fibre-optic cables. Other highlights of the gallery display are infrastructure technologies that have a big impact through their size or aesthetic, such as a hugeaerialtuning inductor from Rugby Radio Station (1943), an early Google ‘corkboard’ server (1998) that enabled the company to support web searches, an actual Eurostar 3000 communications satellite (2000) and the BBC’s first transmitter, 2LO (1922). We even commissioned a model of the Shabolovka radio tower in Moscow (1922) to show how the social and cultural trajectories of post-revolutionary Russia helped to shape the form of radio technology in the Russian landscape.

But this still doesn’t overcome the issue that the actual information transferred – the bits and data – is transient and insubstantial. By acquiring and displaying the machines, we are not acknowledging the history of the media they conveyed. When the machines are turned off, and the messages cease to flow, the signal is no longer captured or transmitted. Just as the scientist Landauer (1999, pp 63–7) described the notion that information has an existence independent of its physical manifestation as ‘quaint’, so, conversely, the idea that we can display the technology without its non-physical manifestation seems dated, providing as it would only a partial understanding of the social construction of the technology. For some technologies information is physically embodied when it is stored (in a letter, a telegram, on a punched card, on a map) but for others it becomes ephemeral when it is shared. Television and radio programmes define the culture and history of information technologies, yet few science and technology museums have tackled the display of this media as part of a broader understanding of information and communications technology. Computers are defined as a ‘universal machines’ due to their ability to use a series of logical instructions (programs) to manipulate data for a range of different functions, but it is this central universality, the software, that is rarely displayed in museums.

In the Information Age gallery we attempted to address this problem directly by bringing the messages together with the technology. In one example we developed a series of ‘radio totems’ that brought some of the earliest recordings from BBC radio together with the Museum’s impressive collection of home-made and manufactured radio sets from the 1920s and 30s. The plan was to create a soundscape that enabled visitors to reflect on the experience of radio as a novel phenomenon, a new medium that was still experimenting with how to 'inform, educate and entertain'.[2] In another we created a cast of a Bush 22 television that plays part of the original 1953 broadcast of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II so that visitors could experience the programme at the same size and quality as the original.

Audio 1

Watching the Queen’s coronation on television: Reminiscences from 1953

For computing technology displaying the media together with the technology is a challenge. Unlike the nostalgia that is evoked by, say, a telegram, the display of emails or web videos is too mundane and contemporary to be effective – there is not enough distance for reflection or consideration through an interesting cultural lens. In considering the World Wide Web we decided to focus on how information is shared and transferred through the network. Working with the inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and inventor of hypertext narratives Tim Wright, we developed an environment that explored ideas such as web addresses, coding and packet switching. The plan was that the abstract concept of a distributed information network could be explained to visitors by understanding how emails, videos and text were transferred and shared on the web. The narrative was explored through a six-meter high box – a Storybox – that provided a unique experience for this network. The Storybox is ‘clever’, being fed with regularly updated information about the London Transport underground network, the weather and time until the museum closes, each subtly changing the narrative in real time. Thus the Information Age gallery not only displays the physical artefacts of computer networks, but highlights the ‘messy complexity’ (Wright, 2015) of networked and programmable machines.

Figure 7

Colour photograph of the inside of a colourful and brightly lit installation in the Information Age exhibition showing a woman looking at a large screen with the text welcome to the web

The Web Storybox uses a hypertext narrative and live data feeds to explain some fundamental aspects of the World Wide Web, such as web addresses, HTML code and packet switching

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150303/005