Mary Archer's piece on the changes ahead for the National Media Museum was published as we attended an academic conference at The University of Hull called 'Material Cultures of Television'. For two days, television historians and curators of television history have shared research about the significance of television's material culture and history, interpreted in many different ways, all of which were focused around the question of television's cultural value. This was not just research which represented the specialised interests of academics, but work which demonstrated the ways in which television's material history connects to and figures in personal, family and community histories and memories. This was clearly shown by the massive and unprecedented popularity of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum's recent exhibition The Story of Children's Television from 1946 to Today, now touring the nation until 2018. The debate around the changes taking place at the National Media Museum has been focused around the move of the collection of the Royal Photographic Society from Bradford to London, and questions of metropolitanism and the north-south divide. What has not yet been highlighted is the impact of the ongoing changes and redundancies at the NMM on the broadcasting history collection.
The National Media Museum is home to one of most extensive collections of artefacts relating to the history and technological development of television, of the amazing Experience TV Gallery and was, until 2013 also the site of the much-loved TV Heaven exhibit. Along with the name change (from The National Museum of Film, Photography and Television to The National Media Museum, as highlighted by Eamonn McCabe in his piece of 11.2.16), there has been a gradual shift away from such specialist exhibits drawing on this collection, with TV Heaven replaced by the BFI Mediatheque and the Experience TV Gallery to go later this year, and towards much more generalised histories of media focused around STEM subjects. People will be familiar with the Logie Baird name and the international role of the company in pioneering television. With the redundancy of specialist curators like Iain Logie Baird, the NMM's head television curator, and his colleagues, and the divorce of the artefacts in this invaluable collection from specialists who can critically interpret it, we run the risk of reducing this important resource to a pile of obsolete technology in deep storage. Without specialist media historians and curators caring for the collection, we are likely to lose sight of the particularities of, for example, the history of television's development in terms of design, the relationship between technology and creativity, between television and society in a much more generalised account. With these curators, the collection tells social and design histories of television, and a history of British television industry and technology.
Archer's piece comments on the importance of focusing on STEM subjects and the support for the changes at the NMM from 'key partners' in Bradford, schools, colleges and universities for whom there is a clear investment in the STEM agenda. What, exactly, has been the scope of the consultation which has taken place around the changes? As Kevin Moore has argued in his work on popular culture and museums, 'Public museums should reflect the needs and interests of those who pay for them through their taxes. Yet too few museums have ever effectively asked the public… what these interests are.' There needs to be a national conversation and consultation about the impact of changes to the National Media Museum, for this is a national and not only a regional museum and resource. The suggested name change, reported in Josh Halliday's piece of 7.2.16, to Science Museum North, radically transform storms this status.
In the US, there is a call for STEM to become STEAM, with the 'A' representing the arts as a core subject in the curriculum; in the academy, as in television history, the productive intersections between the sciences and the arts are at the cutting edge of research agendas. The move away from specialist media histories and towards a generalist focus on science and technology is reductive and reactionary. Let's have a genuine conversation about the future of our national cultural institutions and not relegate our national broadcasting history to a pile of wires and tubes with no-one to disentangle and make sense of them for us, and for the future.
Joanne Garde-Hansen, Rachel Moseley and Helen Wheatley
Centre for Television History, Heritage and Memory Research
University of Warwick