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)