The Medium Is the Message

Article excerpt

Britain's National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (NMPFT) has been exemplary, perhaps even uniquely successful in capitalizing on the natural assets of a media museum. For such a museum is especially well positioned to put itself on display: the technologies of selection, reproduction and distribution that it employs to do its work are the same ones the visitors expect to see, "experience" and presumably learn more about. The NMPFT's exhibition policies include a deep reluctance to put anything behind glass; a firm commitment to audience-interactive installations; a preference for non-linear, "enter anywhere" exhibition organization; and an outright refusal of lengthy and complex printed information (labels must be less than 50 words). As much as photographic history, television production or the triumphs and vicissitudes of British cinema, technically mediated "user-friendliness" itself is on exhibit here.

On March 13, 1996 the NMPFT embarked on a new project called "Imaging Frontiers," which advances still further in the same direction. The project has been funded substantially through the National Lottery ([pounds]7.6 million) and the European Community ([pounds]3.5 million), with additional support from the Foundation for Sports and the Arts ([pounds]150,000). The total budget of [pounds]13.25 million (about $20 million) provides for a new building and facilities for presenting new applications of digitized pictures (in medicine, physical and biological sciences, etc.), "virtual galleries," and hands-on opportunities to access and transmit visually encoded information - that information, as might be expected, concerns the museum's own collections and activities. As museum director Amanda Nevill put it at the project's formal launch, "We are in a unique position to take advantage of these new creative technologies to create a Museum of the next century." To museum-watchers of all stripes, but particularly to those who would read the museum as "a key paradigm of contemporary cultural activities,"(1) such a project - a museum of the future - must pose a challenging set of questions.

The NMPFT is the "media wing" of the London-based National Museum of Science and Industry and holds the extremely rich national collections related to media technologies. In archival storage, for example, are the research notes and experimental results of William Henry Fox-Talbot's efforts to fix the camera obscura image in the 1830s. They include the first, legendary negative of the windows at Lacock Abbey. In significant respects, nevertheless, the NMPFT is a new museum - it was founded in 1983. In keeping with the Science Museum's general move to decentralize its activities at that time, the new organization was based in Bradford, West Yorkshire, where a suitable building - a former theater - was available, and a suitable partnership with the city council had been forged. The architecture in fact still functions to insure the centrality, both functional and physical, of IMAX screenings within the museum's full range of activities.

At the time the museum was founded, there were many who doubted the wisdom of moving a significant part of the national holdings so far from the nation's economic and cultural center. For Bradford is, both physically and conceptually, far from London. Once saddled with a reputation as a particularly "tough," bleak, Northern industrial city, Bradford now boasts a gracious, busy center, with well-preserved nineteenth-century architecture and the look of secure prosperity, to which the NMPFT contributes, and from which it benefits. Still, Bradford has yet to achieve the range of international connections, the cosmopolitan sheen of neighboring Manchester or Leeds; and Bradford's status as a thoroughly "English" city is reflected in the NMPFT's attendance statistics: there are very few visitors from abroad; about a third travel 15 miles or fewer; almost all travel fewer than 60. Repeat visitorship is gratifyingly high. …