Information Age gallery

Analysis: the Science Museum Information Age gallery

The new Science Museum information and communications gallery, Information Age, celebrates the course of connectivity and emphasises the influence of users on technological innovation.

London's Science Museum, home to science and technology galleries and exhibitions, will launch its newest gallery, 'Information Age: Six Networks That Changed Our World', on 25 October. The £15.6m gallery will celebrate the history of information and communication technologies developed over the last 200 years.

The space was previously occupied by the Science Museum's Shipping Gallery, but has now been remodelled by branded environment specialist Universal Design Studio. The new gallery will occupy 2,500 square metres, making it the largest exhibition space in the Science Museum; it will feature more than 800 rare and historic objects drawn from various collections, some of which have never before been on public display. They include the first transatlantic telegraph cable that connected Europe and North America in 1858, the BBC's first radio transmitter 2LO (from 1922), and the actual NeXTcube workstation computer used by Sir Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1989.

Though showcasing historic technologies and inventors, the gallery has been conceived as a state-of-the-art visitor experience. It is embedded with interactive display screens, informative videos, mobile apps support and QR (quick response) codes, all set-up to enable visitors to physically interact with the objects and enhance their understanding of them.

"The Science Museum has incredible communications and computing collections - yet it hasn't redone either gallery since the 1970s," said the Science Museum's keeper of technologies and engineering, Tilly Blyth, "so a revamp of the display and the collections was well overdue. The Information Age gallery is an opportunity to display these historic objects that either haven't been displayed before, or perhaps have been visible but visitors haven't had an opportunity to engage with them."

Information Age is divided into six generic Networks: 'The Cable', 'The Telephone Exchange', 'Broadcast', 'The Constellation', 'The Cell', and 'The Web'. Each explores how modern communications infrastructures came into being by reflecting back on historical technologies and personal stories of how and why objects were developed. There is, however, no strictly chronological order to the way the Networks have been positioned; this is because various inventions from each of the desginated zones were not created at the same time, and technological eras overlap.

"The way we have approached the interpretation is to look at the stories behind the objects and the people that have made those objects and who have contributed to information and communications technologies," explained Blyth. "However, for the Science Museum it's been really important that this is not just a story about 'invention', but to tell a story about the users and how we use these devices all the time, and about we all contribute to the development of these technologies. It's as much about telling a societal story as [explaining] a technological [narrative]."

Zone to zone

Right in the centre, surrounded by the six zones, sits the powerful radio transmitter, the Rugby Radio Station, a 6m-high aerial inductance coil donated by BT. Dating from 1926, this exhibit forms the centrepiece of the gallery, due to its imposing dimensions and appearance. It comprises of six copper coils, each measuring 5m in diameter and weighing 350kg. To ensure the model fit in the gallery, a replica was made to test its positioning around the building.

In each of the six Networks, there will be a 'Storybox' embedded with digital content inviting visitors to interact and look closely at the history behind the objects and personal stories.

The Storyboxes are six semi-enclosed environments, one for each Network, which draw on a wide-range of media such as digital, video, animation and audio to help bring the stories of the gallery to life and encourage visitors to look more closely at the historical objects. They set out to encapsulate the essence of each network; for instance, the impact of the Cable Network was to make the world feel like a smaller, more connected place.

"As the shape of the gallery came together it became clearer how the six zones would fit together," explained Blyth. "Though there isn't a 'start' or an 'end' to the zones, visitors should know which section they are in - and this comes from the respective Storyboxes. These really define essences of each network and give an insight to the visitors through digital experiences."

She added: "What was really interesting as a challenge was balancing the use of digital technology into the gallery by using subtle technologies which do not overshadow the real reason for visitors to be there, which is to engage with pre-existing technologies."

The Cable Storybox, which focuses on the history of telegraphy, evokes a Victorian period attic and features theatrical and mechanical vignettes bringing to life the stories of telegraphy. The overall producer is Tim Hunkin, an English engineer, cartoonist and writer. The display was produced by Matthew Robins, creator of puppet theatre and animations, and narrated by Economist digital editor Tom Standage - author of the 1998 book 'The Victorian Internet'.

The Telephone Exchange Storybox features four theatrical audio stories that highlight the intimacy of telephony - such as the personal and emotional experience - from 1870 to 1970. Braunarts, specialists in digital media and soundscapes, collaborated with playwright and critic Bonnie Greer to produce four short audio dramas set in 1881, 1918, 1941 and 1967, which will be relayed through audio and two vintage telephones.

The third Storybox, Broadcast, looks back on the history of broadcast communications by showcasing 17 archival clips that received some of the highest viewing figures in broadcasting history, such as the assassination of US President John F Kennedy in 1963, the 1966 FIFA World Cup Final, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's Declaration of War broadcast in 1939. Video and production company Mesmer took lead in creating the Storybox and writer John Wyver from Illuminations Televisions is the narrator.

The Constellation Storybox explores satellite communications by using a projection-mapped video to show six short acts that explore innovation, drama, and humanity of satellite communications. Produced by video and production designer Finn Ross Studio, the content was put together by contributors UK astronaut Helen Sharman, Astrium's Tim Waterfield, and historian of satellite communications Des Prouse.

The Cell Storybox, which focuses on mobile communications, in particular data, mobility and identity, exposes visitors to short narratives that invite audiences to make a call or contribute texts and pictures using their own smartphone. ISO digital design studio collaborated with award-winning playwright Dawn King to provide a feel of connected living. The last Storybox, the Web, explains how the World Wide Web works including URLs, IP addresses, packet switching and HTML, which is all narrated by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the comedian Josie Long.

"Information Age shows that in the past, as today, innovation didn't just come from a few pioneers, but also from the users of technology," said the Science Museum's Blyth. "We have worked closely with communities in the UK and overseas to identify these user stories, from the application of > < mobile technology by entrepreneurs in Cameroon, for instance, to examples of private telegrams that were donated to the exhibition by British families."

From the 800 objects featured in the gallery, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (the IET) - the Institution of Electrical Engineers until 2006 - donated 35 historic and iconic examples of information and communication technology. Notable exhibits from the IET collection include: the Morse key with send-receive switch made by the General Post Office (1900-1920), a pair of Bell telephones made by SM James in 1878, the Reis telephone transmitter made by JW Arnold in 1863, and a portion of the first underground cable laid in London, its maker is unknown but it was made sometime after 1844.

Information Age is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, BT (principal lead sponsor), ARM (principal sponsor), Bloomberg Philanthropies and Google (principal funders). Major funders include the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Wolfson Foundation, the Bonita Trust and the Motorola Solutions Foundation.

Additional support has been provided by Accenture (Connect Circle sponsor) as well as the IET, Cambridge Wireless, the David and Claudia Harding Foundation and other individual donors.

Among the newer exhibits is a scale model of the Shukhov radio tower, the 160m-high Moscow original of which was the first permanent structure to be built there after the Russian Revolution. Its design was based on an innovative steel lattice hyperboloid structure. It provided the first radio broadcasts to the Soviet Union, and became symbolic of a new era of state communications.

Another iconic object is the 1950s Pilot Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). First demonstrated in 1950, this is one of Britain's earliest stored program computers and the oldest complete general purpose electronic computer in Britain. Designed and built at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Middlesex in 1949-1950, it was based on plans for a larger computer (the ACE) designed by the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing at NPL between 1945 and 1947.

The Information Age gallery is also showcasing what's sometimes claimed to be the first 'smartphone', the IBM Simon. The 1994 device brought together mobile telephone technology and personal computing, as it could run basic software applications, send or receive faxes, save notes and store diary entries. The Simon was not a commercial success but did demonstrate that'it was possible to fit a computer inside a pocket. Blyth explained that sourcing these objects has not been easy: "This has been a major project for such a long period of time, which means there has been a lot of change in the vision and that means unpredicted problems have occurred.

"For a start the tuning coil which sits in the heart of the gallery, and is such an awe-inspiring object, had to be recreated. When we acquired it from BT, we put it into storage and had the desire to place it in the gallery, but at 6m high we weren't sure if it would fit, so we had to rebuild a copy of it," said Blyth. "Now it is a central feature in the gallery, it's very different to anything anyone would see - we wanted a wow reaction from visitors and for them to question things they have not seen before.

"Another challenge, which no amount of planning could have prevented, was bringing the Eurostar 3000 communications satellite from Astrium in Stevenage to London," continued Blyth. "Because it was embedded with government communications, we required an ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation) license from the US State Department but at that time the US government had shut down for three months, we had to wait and there was a big hole in the side of the Museum."

Along with the digital signage and interactive screens in the Storyboxes, the Science Museum has also created three apps available on Apple and Android; InfoAge+, InfoAge AudioEyes and Fiducial Voice Beacons, to enhance the visitor experience by allowing them to use their own devices.

"We live in a physical connected world and that is what'we wanted for the gallery, so we have touchscreens and display screens scattered around'the Museum," said Blyth, "but nowadays, everywhere you go there is information which can transition directly into personal devices - we wanted to bring this into the gallery by creating apps to add to the visitor'experience."

Infoage+ is a learning app that enables visitors to be creative with four challenges including a timeline of the Information Age gallery that users can add themselves and objects into.

Also featured is a card game in which visitors try to beat the Science Museum by comparing facts about different objects. There is also a video challenge inviting visitors to create a news report, imagining themselves covering a breaking story based on the objects, stories and people in the Information Age gallery.

The fourth challenge, inspired by the movie 'Night in the Museum', conveys a cartoon-style dialogue that visitors imagine might happen after hours between objects in the gallery.

The InfoAge AudioEyes is an'audio app which enables visitors to locate and listen to audio descriptions across the gallery. It is designed for blind and partially sighted visitors, allowing them to independently orientate themselves around the gallery.

The Fiducial Voice Beacons app, by artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, enables visitors to interact with the artwork on the gallery ceiling. Each beacon contains a sound recording that is transformed into beams of light. The app enables people to select, listen to and replace the recording with their own message. *

The Information Age gallery

is free to visit, and is open

seven days a week between

10am and 6pm.

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