Category Archives: Co-creation

Message received: collecting telegrams across the UK

Jen Kavanagh is the Audience Engagement Manager for Information Age, a new gallery about the history of information and communication opening in Autumn 2014.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the telegram collecting project which has been taking place to support the Information Age gallery development. This project is now nearing an end, with over 350 telegrams collected as digital scans by our amazing group of community collectors from across the UK.

These telegrams will now be narrowed down to a short list of highlights, spanning a range of subject areas and covering stories and people from across the UK. The final selection will be displayed on a screen in the new gallery, allowing our visitors to get a sense of why telegrams were sent over the decades and what messages they contained.

For now, here is a sneak preview of one of them. This telegram was sent by Mr Ross to his wife in November 1902, having just found out he’d been awarded a Nobel Prize.

Telegram from Mr Ross to his wife, 1916

Telegram from Mr Ross to his wife, 1902

I wanted to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to the volunteers who worked with us on the project across the Science Museum and our five partner museums (The Cardiff StoryNational Museums ScotlandThe Riverside Museum in GlasgowPorthcurno Telegraph Museum and the National Railway Museum). I also wanted to provide them with the opportunity to share their thoughts on what they learned from the project. Here are some thoughts from three of the community collectors.

 “What I enjoyed the most about the project was organising the collecting event and getting to hear all the participants’ stories. It was great to work with Heather at Riverside too, I learnt so much relating to Glasgow Museums’ collection. Overall it was an amazing experience, getting to know people from all over the UK and being able to visit the Science Museum.” Elena, Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

 “The most surprising thing I learned from the telegram collecting project was that about 100 years ago people used telegrams as we do use Email today: to let people know if they will be late, to order things, to make sure you get picked up from a train etc. It’s amazing how special and dear the telegrams are to the people who own them today, be it that they wrote or received them or inherited them, telegrams are a little treasure to the owners. I really enjoyed engaging in the people’s stories and lives, getting more curious and pulled into the story behind the telegram was my favourite part of the work on the project.” Maja, Science Museum, London.

“The highs have been the excitement of the discoveries through the sheer colour and design of telegrams, the discoveries of stories which have touched the heart and which have international, national and local historical impacts. This has been an incredible journey. It has been a privilege to share in the life stories of others and be part of that sharing of these with a wider audience. I have taken away from this project the pleasure and privilege of being part of a Team. The project has given me the opportunity to develop my research skills and has reinforced for me the advantages gained from networking and collaborative work.” John, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, Cornwall.

Information Age team begin the one year countdown

Charlotte Connelly is a content developer on Information Agean exciting new gallery about information and communication, opening in September 2014.

This week over in the Information Age team we passed an exciting marker. Instead of counting the time to the gallery opening in years, for the first time we’ve slipped into counting in weeks and months. It seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done so far, and some of the interesting things we still have to look forward to.

Where we’ve come from

The early days of the project were all about research. We spent time rummaging in the museum stores for great objects we could include, visiting other museums, immersing ourselves in archives and doing interviews with knowledgeable folks about communication and information technology.

Where we found gaps in our collection we came up with plans to fill the gaps, growing our collections and expertise as we went. One of those gaps was a decided lack of mobile phone technologies from developing countries – a massive oversight if you’re trying to tell a story about the impact of mobiles in the world today. Our solution was to embark on an ambitious collecting project in Cameroon, which I’ve written about here.

We collected objects and interviews on a research trip to Cameroon to find out more about the impact of mobile phones in Africa (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

We also set about improving our knowledge of the collections already in the museum, and spent long hours looking at objects and reading through the files we keep on them.

We made some exciting finds rummaging through the museum’s archives (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

As our knowledge about the technology and collections grew so did our ideas about we could include in the gallery. We developed a list of 21 compelling stories about how communication and information technologies have affected our lives over the last 200 years. Our next challenge was working out the best ways to tell those stories. We have been working with a lot of different people to help us, from individuals offering their telegrams for inclusion in Information Age and volunteers helping with our research, to larger organisations like the British Vintage Wireless Society and the Samaritans.

Members of the British Vintage Wireless Society in the museum’s stores (Source: Science Museum)

Where are we now?

With a year to go we’ve selected all the objects that will go into the Information Age gallery, and worked out what the showcases will look. The Museum’s conservation team have been beavering away on preparing the objects for display, and the collections information team have been arranging loans and getting all the paperwork sorted for the new objects we’ve acquired, like a replica of the first ever computer mouse.

Things have started happening in the gallery space too. The space is now empty (we captured this stunning laser scan of the old gallery), waiting for the new Information Age gallery structure to be built. We’re even expecting our first objects to be installed soon (mostly the very big ones that require quite a large hole being made in the wall!)

The empty gallery leaves us with a formidable amount of space to fill. (Source: Science Museum)

In April 2013 we officially launched the project, and invited some of our supporters to see the work we’d been doing. Suddenly we were faced with lots of expectant faces, and it made the whole project feel much more real somehow.

We got some of our objects out to show off to supporters at the Information Age launch (Source: Science Museum)

What comes next?

Those of us working on the content of the gallery have already started writing the labels that accompany the object. We’re also getting started on all the digital things – things like interactive screens in the gallery, and the pages for the website, plus one or two surprises that we’ll announce later.

Some of the audience research team testing a prototype of one of our interactive displays. (Source: Sophie Keyse / Science Museum)

The building work and show cases will soon start to progress quickly, and behind the scenes the conservation team will be slowly but surely working through the list of objects that need preparing for display. It won’t be long before we’re starting to install objects in their final positions, ready for the exciting moment when we open our doors.

Information Agean exciting new gallery about information and communication, opens in September 2014.

Message received: telegram collecting across the UK

Jen Kavanagh is the Audience Engagement Manager for Information Age, a new communications gallery opening in 2014. Jen has been working on a project to collect and photograph old telegrams.  

Long before we could send a text message, email our contacts, use a landline telephone, or hear the news on the radio, we communicated important information and messages of goodwill via telegrams. This amazing system was introduced as early the 1830s, and continued to be used in the UK until its end in 1982.

For a lot of people, sending or receiving a telegram was predominantly confined to matters of urgency, such as notifying the illness or death of relatives. As such, the telegram came to be associated with bad news, and was often dreaded by the receiver. But as other forms of communication became more mainstream and efficient, telegrams became more of a novelty, being used to send messages of congratulations for weddings and births, and have since been kept as keepsakes.

To support the development of a section of the Information Age gallery that’s all about telegraphy, the team thought that it would be great to have a selection of telegrams on display. However, with few telegrams in our collection, the challenge was set to identify examples which show the range of messages sent over the telegram’s long history, and which could be displayed in the new gallery. To overcome this, we invited members of the public to share their telegrams and the stories behind them with us.

Community collector volunteers Alastair and Maja scanning some telegrams. (Source: Science Museum)

To ensure that we collected stories from across the UK, we invited partner museums to work with us, allowing them to also acquire telegrams for their own collections, and to make new connections within their local communities. To help with the search, each museum recruited community collector volunteers who spread the word, identified potential donors and organised collecting days at their local museums. These events took place throughout July, with dozens of fantastic telegrams being collected. Digital scans of these telegrams, along with supporting images and the stories behind the messages will go on display in Information Age, as well as few physical paper telegrams too.

The project has been a great trial for working with volunteers to collect material, and to ensure that the Museum reaches beyond its London base. We will be running sessions with all of the community collectors in the next few weeks to hear their views on the project and to share our lessons learned with each other.

The partner museums who took part are The Cardiff Story, National Museums Scotland, The Riverside Museum in Glasgow, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum and the National Railway Museum. Massive thanks to them all for their support and hard work throughout the project.

Examples of some of the great telegrams shared by the public. (Source: Science Museum)

Hidden Histories of Information

Tilly Blyth, Keeper of Technologies and Engineering, writes about the hidden histories of information. Information Age, a new £15.6m communication gallery, will reveal how our lives have been transformed by communication innovations over the last 200 years.

Our new gallery on information and communications technologies, Information Age, will open in Autumn 2014. It will look at the development of our information networks, from the growth of the worldwide electric telegraph network in the 19th century, to the influence of mobile phones on our lives today.

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

One of the challenges of exhibiting the complex, and mostly intangible, world of information in a museum context is how you bring together the technology with the people involved and the information shared. The history of information is not just a neat history of devices. The telegraph instruments, radio and televisions, computers and mobile phones all reflect the material culture of information, but the history and future of information is much more complex.

One approach for dealing with this complexity is to look at how users, as well as innovators, have developed information and communications networks. Through personal stories we can connect visitors to the lived experience of technological change and reveal the significance of these networks to our ancestors’ lives.

As part of this approach we are conducting some new oral histories. We have recorded Gulf War veterans discussing their experience in 1991 of navigating around the desert both with, and without GPS. We have talked to the original engineers who set up Britain’s first commercial mobile phone networks for Vodafone and Cellnet in 1985. We will be talking to those who created and used the world’s first computer for commercial applications, the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO 1) in 1951. We have also interviewed some of the women who worked at the last last manual telephone exchange in Greater London, the Enfield Exchange in North London.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

A lovely example of one account if this interview with Jean Singleton, a telephone operator who worked at a few different telephone exchanges, including Enfield when it was still a manual exchange. Jean left school at 15 when she started working for the GPO. Here she describes what made a good telephone operator.

We hope that detailed personal accounts like these will enthuse our audiences, reveal histories that are often not formally documented and show how centuries of ‘new’ information and communication devices have changed people’s lives.

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

Science Museum enters the Information Age

Charlotte Connelly is a Content Developer for Information Age, a new communications technology gallery opening in September 2014.

Last night the Science Museum announced exciting details about a new £16m communications gallery, Information Age, which will open in September 2014.

Artist’s impression of the Cable Network exploring electric telegraph.

Artist’s impression of the Cable Network exploring electric telegraph. Image credit: Science Museum / Universal Design Studio

The gallery will be a celebration of information and communication technologies. We’re already working on cutting edge interactive displays and participatory experiences that will reveal the stories behind how our lives have been transformed by communication innovations over the last 200 years.

Hundreds of unique objects from the Science Museum’s collections will go on display, many of which have never been seen before. They will include the BBC’s first radio transmitter 2LO, the BESM-6, the only Russian supercomputer in a museum collection in the West, and a full sized communications satellite.

Laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858 proved to be a tricky challenge to overcome. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

In Information Age we tell some of the dramatic stories behind the growth of the worldwide telegraph network in the 19th century and the influence of mobile phones on our lives today. Visitors can uncover stories about the birth of British broadcasting and learn about pioneering achievements in the development of the telephone. The role of satellites in global communications and the birth of the World Wide Web will also be explored in the new gallery.

Not only are we working hard behind the scenes of the Museum, we’ve also been working with lots of other organisations to develop the gallery. For our mobile phone display, we have a great selection of objects collected in Cameroon – look out for a blog post all about that coming soon! We’ve been working with Cameroonian communities in both Cameroon and the UK to decide how these stories are displayed.

We’ve also interviewed women who worked on the manual telephone exchange at Enfield in North London. Their stories have been selected by young women from the same area to be included in the gallery.

Our Curator of Communication, John Liffen, looking at a section of the Enfield exchange when it was installed in the Enfield Museum (Source: Hilary Geoghegan)

Watch this space to discover more about Information Age as the team will be writing regular blog posts about their work on the gallery to keep you up to date. Add your comments below to tell us what you would like to find out about.

The Secret of Life

The third and final installment of Miranda Bud’s blogs… 

The Watson and Crick discovery of the DNA double helix is an iconic image of our scientific age. It is considered the milestone of contemporary genetics and is such an integrated part of our society that saying “it’s in my DNA” is a commonly used phrase by many people.

Working with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin they unlocked the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century. It led to countless advances, solved a mystery which had troubled scientists for decades and it was what produced Francis Crick’s famous statement in the Eagle pub on the 28th February 1953 that he and Watson had “found the secret of life”.

(The four Collaborators on the DNA model. Credit: ba-education.com)

Since then a lot more research has been done to unravel the secrets of DNA and to decode the human genome. What surprised me though was that DNA structure is not something merely left to the scientific world…

In 1993 Bijan, an American fashion designer, brought out ‘DNA’ perfume, with the caption “DNA…it’s the reason you have your father’s eyes, your mother’s smile”. This highlights the link between art and science that exists and which is becoming more visible, as more and more artists and designers take their inspiration from molecular biology.

(Bottle of 'DNA' eau de parfum, United States, 1993. Credit: Science Museum)

From my time at the Science Museum I have seen more than anything how science can be related to all aspects of life. From fashion to fission, science helps build a picture of the world around us and tries to give us reasons for why we live the way we do.

I loved seeing a different side to the museum, one most members of the public don’t get to experience. Blythe and Wroughton with their huge stores allow you to see not just science, but history as well. There are so many objects each with a unique story, and I only regret that I have only managed to discover but a few of those stories in my short time here.

Exploring our vintage radios

When I was asked to help develop ideas about early radio broadcasting for a proposed new gallery at the Science Museum I soon realised that I needed help to build up my knowledge quickly. I began with the usual resources – I read some books, looked online and scoured our collection for likely looking objects to explore. While all of these resources could provide me with a technical understanding of the history of radio, I struggled to get a grasp of what it must have felt like to have used early radio sets or listened to early broadcasts. It was time, I decided, to seek some expert help.

The 2LO transmitter at Marconi House in the Strand (Science Museum)

Several members of the British Vintage Wireless Society (BVWS) were already pencilled in to pay a visit to the Museum to look at the radios in our collection. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to recruit a few of them to work more closely with us. We knew we wanted to display one star object from the collection – the 2LO transmitter, which transmitted the very first BBC radio broadcasts in 1922. In addition we have a large collection of radio receivers from the 1920s and 1930s. What we were missing was a range of fascinating stories to help us choose between all those radios. We invited the members of the BVWS to help us select the stories that represented their experience and knowledge of vintage radios.

Five of the group offered their time, and I worked with a colleague to plan a series of four sessions for them. Over the course of the sessions the group got to know our collections and gradually built up their own set of criteria for selecting radio equipment. We asked them to arrive at a list of three objects each, meaning we would have a total of fifteen radio receivers as a long-list to work with.

Mike and Martyn inspect a speaker horn with my help (Science Museum)

As well as gathering a list of objects we were keen to collect stories about the historical impact of radios on everyday life. We also hoped to find out what led the members of the BVWS to be so enthusiastic about and enthralled with vintage radio equipment. They have a strong emotional attachment to these objects that would be brilliant to share with our visitors. We spent one of the four sessions at the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum which holds an amazing collection of radios and televisions inside the walls of an innocent looking house in South London. While we were there, surrounded by all the fantastic objects in the museum, we interviewed some of the group and asked them about what got them collecting in the first place.

By the end of the four sessions we had a successfully arrived at a list of objects to display alongside the 2LO transmitter, together with stories to support them. One of the more unexpected items to make it onto the list was a ceramic mixing bowl selected by Lorne Clark. He told us how his mother, who had lived near a large transmitter, would place a pair of headphones in a mixing bowl in order to amplify the sound from a crystal radio set and make group listening possible.

The sessions were great fun and I certainly learned a lot about early radio from the group, and much more quickly and enjoyably than if I had been left to my own devices. Inviting outside groups to add their own expertise to the knowledge held by a museum and its curators can add a richness and variety to displays – especially as personal stories such as Lorne’s are often missing from a museum’s formal historic collections. Hopefully all of the BVWS members we worked with enjoyed their experience and gained an interesting insight into how a large museum goes about developing exhibition displays. I’m positive they enjoyed looking at our objects in storage because persuading them to leave the storeroom at the end of a session was always something of a challenge.

Some of the BVWS group with Science Museum staff in the garden of the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum – (left to right) Charlotte Connelly, Martyn Bennett, Marie Hobson, Lorne Clark, John Thompson, Deanne Naula. (Courtesy of Lorne Clarke - www.earlywireless.com)

Help us create a gallery display about your ancestors

Later this year the Science Museum’s opening a temporary exhibition that will explore the relevance of our collections to family historians. We’re looking for people who could help us to develop it.

Miners

Miners taking a break, South Wales 1931 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

One part of the exhibition will focus on a number of different trades and professions. A theme that we are already looking at in an ongoing series of articles for Family Tree magazine.

Do you have an ancestor story to tell that relates to one of the areas to be featured? 

Factory workers

Workers making metal goods, Doncaster early 20th century (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

We want this part of the display to be a ‘co-creation’ with our collaborators playing a big part in developing the content of the case. 

This would mean contributing label text, helping select relevant objects from our collections, but also bringing to the display personal objects, images and anecdotes relating to your ancestor’s work to really bring their story to life.

Nurses

Nurses, late 19th century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The trades and professions we are planning to feature are:

  • Scientists and research workers – perhaps a leading scientist or a humble laboratory worker.
  • Communications workers – a telegraphist, cable layer, messenger boy or postal worker etc. 
  • Medical workers – be they nurse, surgeon, midwife or hospital porter
  • Miners – Digging out coal or minerals.  
  • Manufacturing workers – skilled craftsmen or factory mass production line?
  • Textile workers – from the industrialised cotton mills to home-based dressmaking. 
  • Domestic servants – did they have to come to grips with the new ‘labour saving’ technologies? 
  • Transport workers – on water, on land and perhaps even the early days of air.  
  • Agriculture and food production workers – on the land or in the factory.

If you think you have an ancestor story that could be displayed please contact us at publichistory@sciencemuseum.org.uk with details.