Information Age at the Science Museum: Style Over Substance

Information Age is a permanent exhibition at the Science Museum of London, seeking to “celebrate more than 200 years of innovation in information and communication technologies(Science Museum, 2016). The displays are thorough and varied, showing antique telegram machines, 1920s radio equipment, mid-20th century telephone exchange panels, beautiful 1960s TVs, bulky 1960s and 1970s mainframes, shiny telephones of all decades, and of course a wide array of retro computing (the Apple Lisa (1983) and Macintosh (1984) being particular highlights for me). The exhibition’s wide and clear displays do a good job of keeping the visitor entertained and are a true visual treat.

The exhibition is organised around the six key technology revolutions that have changed information in the last two hundred years: Cable, Broadcast, Exchange, Constellation, Web, and Cell. The displays focus on the individual objects or collections that best represent these innovations, showing an interesting mix of originals, reproductions, or small reconstitutions such as ship cabins. The focus is firmly placed on how the object functions, and on the people behind the inventions. This makes for a rather personal history of each technology, while attempting to show how these objects transformed our lives and allowed further technology progress.

An interesting goal, and an impressive display. Did the exhibition achieve everything it set out to do, however? I’m not so sure.

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The exhibition layout

My first criticism comes from a purely practical perspective: where do I go? Upon entering, the visitor is faced with a small panel detailing the exhibition layout. It does not suggest an order, although the visitor will naturally be drawn to what seems the “oldest” display (in this case “Cable”), and work their way around the room to advance to newer technologies. However, following this implied order makes for some odd experiences. Soon after observing some 1960s TVs, I was suddenly faced with a wall of code, before realising I was in the “Web” exhibition; turning away from the code I was faced with a mainframe computer, some 40-odd years older than the code. Similarly jarring experiences happen throughout the exhibition as it is very easy to turn the wrong corner, sometimes difficult to understand why we are shown older technology in the midst of a modern exhibition, and almost impossible to check which display we are currently in. I thought this was an oversight that could have easily be fixed by a suggested display order or larger, more informative text panels. If we think of an exhibition as a magic circle experience (a bubble of immersion), the lack of direction and of a consistent chronological narrative unfortunately broke this for me.

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tl;dr

Another criticism is that some display pieces are barely explained. This wall of code was a great example: at first glance, there are no explanations are in sight. Closer observation reveals that the few lines explaining the display are hidden in the code. While this is an interesting idea, would a child or an adult not familiar with coding know to look for it this way? This seemed misguided for the intended audience. Furthermore, I would have liked to see this piece linked to the HTML display, and it merited an explanation on how advances in web programming transformed the way we communicate on internet.

 

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Palm Pilots, remember them?

On the other hand, some displays suffered from an info-dump problem, coupled with a lack of necessary context. The digital organisers display illustrates this point rather well: it’s great to see these relics of the 1990s, but why did they become popular? What did they replace, what problem did they solve? Why was one popular with teenagers, another badly received by customers? I would have liked to see that instead of piecemeal information on their functionality.

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Africa and mobile phones

Overall, I felt that this exhibition failed to place itself in a wider societal context. Information and communication revolutions did not start in 1816 on the dot, nor ended in 2016, and I think the exhibition would have been greatly enriched by explaining what was in place beforehand (the importance of printing, the limitations of paper letters, etc.) and by peering into the future. As described earlier, and more problematically, the exhibition consistently failed to explain the fascinating context of the creation of the machines- the WHY, focusing instead on the technical details and the people behind the objects. One notable exception to this lack of context was the welcome aside discussing the importance of mobile phones in Africa, a well thought-out display that showed what information technology can do besides allowing us to communicate.

All in all, while I thoroughly enjoyed the objects on display, I left feeling frustrated. A missed opportunity, and very much style over substance.


References

Science Museum (2016) The Information Age. Available at: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/plan_your_visit/exhibitions/information_age (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

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