Q&A | 'Computing and communication technologies have shaped our world' - Museums Association

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Q&A | ‘Computing and communication technologies have shaped our world’

The Science Museum Group is marking the 100th anniversary of the BBC with a series of exhibitions and events
Exhibitions Science
Rachel Boon is the curator of computing and communications at the Science Museum in London
Rachel Boon is the curator of computing and communications at the Science Museum in London Science Museum

Rachel Boon is the curator of computing and communications at the Science Museum in London. She is the lead curator for a display that will be unveiled on 27 July to mark the BBC’s 100 year-anniversary.

The display features five iconic items from broadcast history that span entertainment to breaking news, education to music. This includes the 6ft-tall 1988 Cyberman costume from Doctor Who and a "midget" portable disc recorder from world war two that was developed to bring listeners closer to the reality of conflict.

The display will offer visitors the chance to see the pioneering technologies that helped to shape the modern media platforms they enjoy today. 

The BBC at 100 display is opening as part of a wider programme in the Science Museum Group to celebrate the BBC’s centenary and the 40th anniversary of Channel 4, with new exhibitions, special displays, events and digital content produced for visitors throughout the year. 

What is your favourite object from the BBC 100 display?

Rachel Boon: BBC at 100 showcases objects from across the BBC’s long history, including radio, television and digital programming.

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My favourite object is the BBC "midget" portable disc recorder. It was built 78 years ago and shows the important role technology plays in accessing news from across the globe. The BBC developed this recorder to report directly from the front line. Transforming news reporting, it brought listeners closer to the realities of the second world war. It was designed to be easily moved, despite weighing 18kg, and journalists recorded straight onto the disc. The recordings were heard on War Report – a pioneering radio programme first broadcast on D-day, 6 June 1944.

A BBC "midget" portable disc recorder (left) and a Cyberman from the BBC Doctor Who seriesScience Museum Group

What do you hope that visitors will get out of the display? 

RB: For the last 100 years, the BBC has utilised broadcast technology to deliver its mission of informing, educating and entertaining audiences across the nation and, as part of the Science Museum Group’s Broadcast 100 programme to celebrate the BBC’s centenary, we are keen for visitors to explore how far the world of broadcasting has developed through these three pillars. In the display, visitors can inspect how the BBC continued to report during the Covid-19 pandemic with specially designed boom poles and microphones.

From the Computer Literacy Project and BBC Microcomputer to BBC Bitesize, we show how the BBC has spent the last century shaping and supporting education. Our visitors can even enter the world of Doctor Who and meet an original 1980s Cyberman – something they may not have encountered before.

What are the key challenges of curating computing and communications collections?

RB: Computing and communication technologies have shaped our world. While it can be easy enough to collect smartphones and computers, there are some interesting challenges around curating these topics. One is the scale of technological systems that physically cannot fit into galleries or stores. For many people, their interaction with infrastructure is a plug socket or tap, not the telecommunications cables running along the seabed or satellites in the exosphere.

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Software remains an issue for museums to collect and it is often represented by the hardware, such as magnetic tape or CDs. Digital technologies, such as apps, are becoming increasingly intangible and the museum sector is working on how best preserve and display this material. 

One way to navigate these constraints (and bring beige boxes to life) is to reflect the broad range of individuals and communities that shaped and were shaped by technology. Collecting a wide range of maker, practitioner, maintainer and user experiences can highlight individuals who are often absent from the historical record and can lead to the reinterpretation of objects and collections. Sharing people’s stories show that we all play a role in the science and technology that affects our lives.

What do museums and broadcasters such as the BBC have in common?

Lewis Pollard, curator of television and broadcast, National Science and Media Museum, Bradford: Museums and broadcasters such as the BBC have a lot in common. We exist to get people interested and excited by the world around us. We ignite curiosity in our audiences and share stories that inform, educate and entertain. This is why it has been so rewarding working with the BBC to celebrate this landmark anniversary for our new exhibition Switched On and across the Science Museum Group’s wider programme.

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