Go back to article: Ventriloquised voices: the Science Museum and the Hartree Differential Analyser

Epilogue: the object today

Figure 11

Colour photograph of the Trainbox on exhibit in the Science Museums Information Age gallery

The Trainbox on exhibit today in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery. Note the order of the objects and the labels below the analyser, including a small picture of Douglas Hartree

In September 2015, on my first visit to the Science Museum, the Trainbox had been removed from exhibition in the mathematics gallery in preparation for its move into the web exhibit of the then-new Information Age gallery. While the object on display is the Trainbox that Douglas Hartree built in 1947, elements of its interpretation appear to be confused, with references made to it as either the Trainbox, the original Meccano model, the stopgap before the Manchester Machine, or the Hartree Differential Analyser.  This confusion remains in 2018 – the object on display today has a label that reads ‘A working model of a differential analyser, 1934’. In contrast to previous displays of the Trainbox, which had focused on the central theme of differential analysis, the story that the object is used to tell in this exhibit is different, suggesting that within this re-interpretation the object speaks with a new set of voices. To better understand what these voices are, we must understand that the Trainbox sits alongside five other objects in the following order:

(i) A model of the first transistor from 1947
(ii) A paper on Boolean algebra and thermodynamics from 1948
(iii) Alan Turing’s work ‘On computable numbers’, 1936
(iv) A working model of a differential analyser, 1934 [the Trainbox]
(v) The logic door from a Ferranti Mark I computer, from 1951
(vi) An image of Turing and colleagues working on the Ferranti Mark I, from 1951

At first glance, this collection of objects implies that the theme of the exhibit is a chronology of British computing from the period between 1930–1950, featuring Turing, Hartree, and Ferranti. However, a closer observation of the order of the objects and the labels in the exhibit shows that the Trainbox – despite being the earliest object chronologically – comes fourth in the order of display.

In a Q+A session after a research seminar on the Differential Analyser I gave in October 2017, Tilly Blyth (Head of Collections and Principal Curator at the Science Museum) explained her perspective that the Trainbox – as part of the larger original analyser – was intended to represent Douglas Hartree’s work and impact within the areas of both analogue and digital computing (Ritchie, 2017). This story is evident on the label attached to the Trainbox, which is dedicated to the career of Douglas Hartree. However, as well as this label, there are a number of other texts associated with the object demonstrating that the Trainbox – labelled as a ‘working model of a differential analyser’ – still speaks with some of Calvert’s original ventriloquised voices. One of these labels describes that ‘Hartree built this model from the construction toy Meccano while waiting for a full-size analyser to be built’.

This label implies that the Trainbox was a type of ‘stopgap’ object developed before a full-size analyser (the Manchester Machine) could be built, conflating the Trainbox with the original differential analyser that Hartree built in 1934 and dismantled in 1947, after which he built the Trainbox. The challenge of multiple interpretations is magnified when it is understood that this description of the Trainbox, as a ‘stopgap’, did not feature in either the original object or Calvert’s ventriloquised object voices. Instead, this interpretation is part of a new set of voices that have been ventriloquised through the object by the Museum so that it can better tell the story of Hartree’s broader career achievements. This example demonstrates the incongruities that are caused when an object is made to speak with a number of simultaneous ventriloquised voices, which further confuses the narrative of the Trainbox on display, through the introduction of new incongruous elements. The result is that while the label correctly attributes the construction of the object on display – the Trainbox – to Hartree, who built it alone in 1947, this contradicts the title given to the object – ‘A working model of a differential analyser, 1934’ – which implies that it is the original analyser Hartree had built with Arthur Porter in 1934. This means that despite the object on display very clearly being the Trainbox that was built in 1947, the voices that the object is made to speak with tell audiences different, often conflicting stories, simultaneously implying that the object is the original analyser, a working model, a stopgap in preparation for the Manchester Machine, and the Trainbox. The potential confusion caused by the addition of these new voices — to make the object tell different stories — supports that idea that the use of models ‘leads to powerful fictions being constructed’ (Vergo, 1989, p 31).

The many stories that the object tells its audiences – as displayed in the Information Age gallery today — support the main contention of this paper: that the voices and stories of the Trainbox have been changed a number of times within the Science Museum since 1949. The analogy of ventriloquism has allowed us to explore how the voices of the object were changed and ventriloquised on a number of occasions at a practical level to make it tell different stories. The paper has provided an alternative perspective on these changes, suggesting that the addition of these voices has led the Trainbox to become a ‘material polyglot’ in the Information Age gallery today, simultaneously speaking to audiences with its original and ventriloquised voices. While the analogy of ventriloquism is a useful tool to reframe how objects develop in the Science Museum, the idea of a museum object as a ‘thing that talks’ works just as well without it. However, by using the analogy, the article has been able to move beyond separate discussions about accessioning, issues of space, and internal politics as explanations of the changing meanings of an object, instead presenting a more cohesive explanation of how and why objects’ voices are used in different ways.

This paper has brought attention to – and provides an alternative perspective for – understandings of how an object changes at a ‘hands-on’ level within the Science Museum, exploring the effect that these changes had on the way museums present a particular object to its audiences. This approach has demonstrated an alternative way to understanding how stories are created and changed – as part of the process by which museums understand, interpret and communicate objects to audiences through their collection and display in museums.



This article could not have been written without the help and support of my supervisors, Dr Charlotte Sleigh and Ben Russell, as well as many other staff and friends at both the University of Kent and the Science Museum. I am also grateful for the comments and feedback from my fellow ‘Wunderkammerites’ on this article during the early stages, as well as Kate Steiner and Richard Nicholls for helping a first-timer through this process.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181005/007