For the want of a museum 

12 September 2015

In the above clip, Ludovic Kennedy takes the Did You See…? cameras to New York to have a look around their Museum of Broadcasting. This was touted as the model for broadcasting museums worldwide: public viewing rooms with classic and/or important broadcasts running on a loop; private viewing areas where you could get a tape and sit down with a notebook and pen; displays of the technology and personalities of broadcasting to give context to material.

As Kennedy points out, at that point in 1982, Britain didn’t have anything similar – but the British Film Institute on the South Bank in London was considering building a Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) next door and that should be a start.

MoMI, sadly, didn’t last long: just 1988 to 1999 before closing ‘temporarily’ and being quietly demolished. The museum itself was, like many British museums, not a haven for dusty academics wanting to have a quiet look around old artefacts and watch old programmes. Instead it was a noisy, child-friendly venue with brash displays of short clips, daleks in the hallways and fingermarks on cabinets. Unlike film, television is not seen as an art. Television is trivial and for trivialising.

Along came the Bradford museum – the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, now the National Media Museum. It again was a noisy child-friendly environment with hands-on displays of blue-screen technology and Central News and TV-am’s sofa. The museum majored on photography and film, the ‘television’ side seemingly an unwanted, and slightly grubby, adjunct to the ‘serious’ stuff. Again, film and photography are arts. Television is stuff that plays in the corner of the bar while you drink with your friends. Wallpaper. Brightly lit, colourful wallpaper.

Meanwhile, the original Museum of Broadcasting became the Museum of Television and Radio, “broadcasting” in the States being a specific word meaning “from a tower” and the museum thought they were excluding cable television. From there it became the Paley Center for Media, still with the displays and archives and viewing booths but now with a mandate to not just chart the history of television and radio but to discuss the future of broadcasting worldwide.

Meanwhile, our one little museum tucked away in Bradford is more famous for its IMAX and the television section is still grubby and dusty. Its curators do their best with little money, but a worldwide centre for broadcasting past, present and future it is not.

Television and radio in the States are very throwaway. It’s all very “now” – if your show doesn’t perform well for a few weeks, it’s gone. If your station could make slightly more money playing Latin rhythms than Top 40, the format is quickly switched. The executives across the US broadcasting scene change with dizzying speed as a single failure sees them off to a worse job in a smaller network while a minor success sees them switch to a better job in a bigger one. Yet the Americans can manage a museum that loves and cherishes television and radio as the art forms they most definitely are.

In Britain, with our much more forgiving, slow television and radio culture, we throwaway the history as quickly as possible; meanwhile the idea of a museum that takes the past seriously is laughed at – who’d want that? – while the notion that such a museum could also discuss the present and inspire the future of the media in question appears to never have occurred to anybody.

You Say

1 response to this article

Tyler Netees 23 September 2015 at 1:27 am

You know, I’d enjoy being able to, in the future, visit all of the things that made British TV great. Just imagine, walking past an “Evolution of The Daleks” exhibit, past the Hall of Endboards, and straight onto the mechanical idents hall, where the Anglia Knight spins away the days.

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