There's something big and important that is missing in our depository of national memory.
There are museums for lawnmowers, pencils, hats, prams – even one for mustard: not just ALL mustards, mind, but one specific brand. But in the country that gave the world the BBC - whose international services remain an important fount of 'soft power' in the 21st-century - as well as a unique and surely never to be repeated system of advertising-funded public service television and radio, AND another unique model in Channel 4 - there is no definitive museum.
True, there are collections and exhibitions dotted around the country, in local libraries and universities (usually with limited public access); there is the National Sound Archives (ditto); bits in several BBC centres, and there have been digitisation projects for particular areas broadcasting which are available over scholarly networks. Most significantly of all, there is the National Media Museum in Bradford - which I visited for the first time in many years last week during an academic conference in the city - which represents all kinds of media, but concentrates on photography, film and television.
The television section is dominated by the BBC, which is fair enough as the Corporation funds some of the museum's work and exhibits. It has a fantastic collection of hardware, and there are great interactive displays. But you wouldn't know that radio thrived and flourished after 1945, let alone that, in the 21st-century, the medium continued to engage some 90% of the UK population for an average time of just under a full 24-hour day every week.
Naturally, given my interests and background, this somewhat rankles! And there are few archives anywhere that commemorate non-BBC radio, which from the 1970s has captured around 50% of all listening, or the hugely significant radio stations, over several eras, that beamed their programmes to the UK from the near continent of Europe – commemorated recently in a BBC 'Archive on 4' programme - on the high seas (see Rudinblog passim!); or to local areas from urban tower blocks. For any of that, you will need to go to enthusiasts' internet sites.
To repeat and amplify: this is not an attack on the National Museum of Media. It is a truly stupendous resource, both for the general public and academic/scholar, not least in its special collections, not generally open to the public, of which I was given a tour during my visit.
The Daily Herald archive of photographs – some three million of them – was especially fascinating. They are organised mainly along subject lines, normally by individuals, and there are many boxes stuffed full of pic's of particularly famous or notorious characters, such as Hitler and Stalin. As the newspaper published many agency photographs, the collection also, in effect, contains several other archives within its strictly climate-controlled walls. There are individual items of extraordinary historic interest, including the world's first negative from 1835 (which, I have to admit, is about 15 years before I thought photography began). The tremendous collections of personal photographs and the various, ingenious pieces in which photographs were displayed and preserved, are another fascinating element. There are huge collections in other rooms of what are plainly titled Large Objects and Small Objects, featuring domestic televisions, radios, record and tape players and so much else besides. Yes, 'Aladdin's Cave' doesn't really cover it.
There's some fun bits, too – if you've ever fancied reading the television news, or thought that newsreader had a pretty cushy job, you can find out how difficult it is by sitting at the desk and reading the Autocue, with the 'director' talking in your ear. So, whether you're a punter who enjoys going "Oh!, we used to have one of those!", or "I wondered how they did that", or are a serious enthusiasts/anorak of different media, including cameras, computers and the Internet (an especially strong part of the exhibitions), or want to see an IMAX movie, then I can strongly recommend a half day or more at the museum. Because they are connected with the Science Museum Group, there's also a great gift shop!
But still…for the overall broadcast side, there is nothing in the UK to match or rival the equivalents in other countries, notably the USA, and in particular the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, which I visited in 2003 and has since moved premises and, evidently, is now even bigger and better.
What I particularly appreciated in that museum is that it treats popular broadcasting – including Top 40 radio, sports' commentaries and news/talk - as seriously as it does the more high-end broadcasts. Plus, radio did not feel, as it so often does in so many contexts, like the 'Cinderella medium'. Yes, you could have lots of fun taking part in hands-on exhibitions, including doing the sound effects in a radio drama and being a weather forecaster in front of the Blue Screen. But it was also a scholarly/academic centre, with whole archives of scripts, schedules, memos, correspondence and so on. And, because it doesn't try and cover other major mass media, such as newspaper and movies, it is able to concentrate all its energies and resources on broadcasting – which, after, all is pretty extensive, both in output and eras.
In Britain, by contrast, over the last 20 years or so, whole archives of material - of broadcasts and all the associated documentation – have been dumped in skips. Some of this has been acquired by private collectors and enthusiasts – including former employees – and some has been digitised and made available over the Internet (thank goodness for YouTube). Many other, unofficial, private collections of recordings, especially of radio, have also been lost, as the original collector moved house, or died, and relatives - not unreasonably - did not see any value in those cassettes and tapes of, say, local radio stations.
Yes, I can finds the coverage of particularly major news stories, disasters, etc., and the high-end, award-winning documentaries and dramas are available. But, if you want to find out what, say, (to take Bradford's local independent station) Pennine Radio sounded like in, say, 1976 or '77 - its news bulletins, the programme content, how presenters engaged with audiences, what the commercials sounded like, and so on - well, you will have to hope somebody out there has kept a few tapes and you can get hold of them before the oxide coating falls away.
Why should we be interested/care in all of this? Well, because those stations – just to take the Independent Local Radio services as an example – were unique in style, regulation and content. They were full public service broadcasters, with a popular touch, which typically could boast that they were listened to by half or more of their potential audience. They reached across the age groups, social-economic classes and ethnic groups.
Of course, this is my peculiar interest, but those stations had never existed before and they never will again – anywhere in the world. There are so many aspects of broadcast media that are just not archived, commemorated, or rarely discussed (e.g. the pirate stations in Northern Ireland during 'The Troubles'), and you have to work harder to preserve broadcasting, as it is (or certainly was) an inherently ephemeral medium. But it has been so influential and so important in so many ways, for individuals and for society/politics/culture. I believe future historians – when the participants and original listeners are dead – will curse us for our carelessness in letting all this just slip away. And it just seems so ODD, given the scale of the culture and nostalgia industries, and the fact that, overall, we are so good at preserving and commemorating aspects of our history.
The centenary of regular, scheduled broadcasting in this country is 2022: that gives us just over seven years to establish (both physically and online) a full, all-encompassing and multi-faceted UK National Museum of Broadcast Communications. Anyone good at National Lottery applications?