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

Storytelling in the information age

To enable visitors to engage in the elusive idea of information, and the form of an information age, we chose to take an interpretation approach based on multiple narratives. Rather than attempting to provide a grand narrative addressing the question of ‘Are we living in an information age?’, or presenting a single viewpoint on the changing nature of our capitalist society, we identified a series of historical moments that could each provide a lens on the socio-cultural history of the technology. We chose these moments to show how new forms of information and communication technologies had shaped new structures, such as industry, entertainment and employment, whilst reinforcing existing ones.

Figure 2

Simple gallery plan if the Information Age exhibition

Map of the Information Age gallery, showing the six networks, 2014

Dividing the gallery into six ‘networks’ (of people, places and ideas, as much as technologies), we chose transforming events or moments in history where social and economic change was as evident as any major developments in technology. In this way the Information Age gallery is first and foremost a human history, told through the stories of the ambitious Victorians who wrapped a cable across the world, the BBC producers who hoped to bring the world together using satellite technology, or the Cambridge entrepreneurs who stumbled across a low-powered microprocessor that would fuel the development of the smart phone.

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Colour photograph of a section of the Information Age gallery showing a constellation display a public telephone box and an aerial walkway which runs around the perimeter of the exhibition

A view of The Constellation and The Exchange Storyboxes in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery, 2014

In each network we identified three or four stories, making a total of 21 across the gallery. Through each story, we explore the ability of technology to shape, transform and solidify existing social relations and power structures. One example, showing the multiple ways technology and society are co-constructed, is the story of the development of the manual telephone exchange. This provided a new generation of women with an opportunity for employment which they were previously distant from, but it also maintained a hierarchy between the switchboard operators and their supervisors that enforced strict rules about gossip and etiquette on the telephone.[1] Through oral histories and the display of our CB1 manual telephone exchange from 1922, we illuminated the skills that these women developed operating complex technical machines. As well as the experience of operators working in an exchange, the gallery also explores the implications of the introduction of the later Strowger equipment, where the development of faster technology made a largely female workforce redundant in the drive for modernisation. The idea was that through such stories we would show not only moments of ‘new’ technology and rapid change, but also how slow and personal such transformations could be. The Strowger telephone exchange was first patented in 1891, yet the last manual telephone exchange was operated in Britain until 1976.

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Colour photograph from a high elevation of an old genuine manual telephone exchange desk and two visitors using the adjacent switchboard demonstration console

An interactive on the Information Age gallery invites visitors to experience life working as a telephonist on a manual telephone exchange

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150303/002