Q&A with Tilly Blyth

Curator of the Science Museum's new permanent gallery, Information Age
The Science Museum is in the final stages of preparation before the opening of Information Age: Six Networks That Changed Our World. It will the first permanent gallery to be delivered under the Science Museum’s new masterplan, a 10-15 year programme that will transform the institution’s buildings, displays and ways of working.

Curated by Tilly Blyth, the museum's keeper of science and technology, the gallery will explore the history of communications and information technology, displaying more than 800 objects over six zones: the cable, the telephone exchange, broadcast, the constellation, the cell and the web. It opens to the public on 25 October.

What is the thinking behind the gallery's display and interpretation?

Information Age is first and foremost about displaying and interpreting our historic collection. The gallery invites visitors to reflect on the long history of information networks, telling 21 incredible stories and showcasing some truly iconic objects from our collections.

For example, you can see the original instruments used to receive the first telegraph messages sent across the Atlantic in 1858, the BBC’s first radio transmitter, 2LO, and the NeXT computer with which Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web.

What were the project’s key aims?

From the start, we wanted to take a different approach to understanding and interpreting technological innovation. When we talk about change in science and technology, we tend to focus on a moment of invention, rather than seeing technological change as a social process.

We wanted to challenge this and create a gallery that places users at the centre of change, from the women who worked as switchboard operators in our telephone exchanges to today’s mobile entrepreneurs in Cameroon.

What have been the main challenges of the project?

In the last few years, the Science Museum has had a renewed ambition to be part of the national cultural conversation and to transform our visitor experiences accordingly. So Information Age needed to be flexible and open to adaptation as we considered how visitors engage with our collections.

Given the ambitious scale of the gallery and some of the objects, we’ve overcome quite a few logistical challenges. For example, one of the star objects is a real Eurostar 3000 communications satellite, which required an International Traffic in Arms Regulation license from the US State Department to allow its delivery to the museum from Astrium in Stevenage.

Unfortunately, this was just at the point of the US government shutdown in October 2013. So for a while we had a large hole in the side of the museum, the rain coming in and a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to get the license. Eventually it came, but at the last possible moment!

Technology moves at a fast pace – how do you plan to keep up with contemporary developments in the gallery?

There are clear places where we know the technological landscape is rapidly shifting, for instance in the use of connected mobile devices. So we have created a display with short films and changeable cases that can easily be updated and evolve over time.

We have also introduced QR codes and short URLs from the gallery to the web, so that new developments and blog posts can be connected to the gallery content for visitors using mobiles and tablets.

A feature on science engagement in museums will be published in the October issue of Museums Journal.