anghara (anghara) wrote,
anghara
anghara

Month of Museums #2: It's Electrifying!

This little town where I now make my home, tucked away in the beautiful foothills of the Cascades, would not be the first place you would think of if you were to consider the establishment of a museum dedicated to electricity (in general) and radio (in particular) - but here it is. When I did the Literature Live event with my local indie bookstore, Village Books, the guy in this video, Tana Granack, turned up at the bookshop with a portable Tesla Coil and proceeded to wow everybody with a fireworks display probably never before seen by the Village Books reading room; the museum has a particular fondness for Tesla (although you'll find him disturbingly absent from their website when it comes to their collections, even though his arch-rival Edison is there - but fear not, he is AMPLY and widely represented in the museum itself. How could he not be, the New Wizard of the West, the man who invented the 21st century...?)

This is one fascinating place. It looks fairly unprepossessing from the street, a long low building, a frontage with a couple of large glass display windows which offer up things like one of those awesome old phonographs with the huge curled tube (His Master's Voice, anyone?), several old-fashioned radios, a bunch of antiquated and once ubiquitous vacuum tubes of the sort that used to form the guts of your TV set once upon a time.

Inside, there are five unique collections which lead into one another. They are a mixture of audio-visual presentations, dioramas, more traditional discrete exhibits on shelves and in glass cases. There's a little bit for everybody out here - for the kids who come to learn, for the adults who come to indulge in unashamed nostalgia.

You make a sharp right as you come in, straight into the The Dawn of the Electrical Age: Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries gallery. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Age of Enlightenment - the time in which electricity began to be more fully understood not as magic but as science. But it was STILL magic, this early on. This was the era of Ben Franklin and his legendary kites, Leyden Jars, experiments with static electricity. You remember the times you got zapped when you were a kid - I recall climbing down a staircase in our high-class hotel on a winter holiday, and making the mistake of reaching out for a metal banister while wearing a woollen sweater positively stuffed with static electricity. The blue-white spark that leaped between the banister and my fingers - and which HURT! - was a Mystery of Life, the spark of life itself. Dr Frankenstein had nothing on the awe and majesty of the actinic blue arc which spanned the empty space between myself and that metal tube. It was one of the most fundamental WOW moments of my childhood - it must have been because I can't have been more than eight at the time and I still have an extremely clear mental image of this event in my mind. This museum - it just brings back that WOW moment. In SPADES.

The early age of electricity-as-miracle gives way to the next gallery - Electricity Sparks Invention: Electricity in the 19th Century, the Industrial Age, the entry of electricity into homes where it brought light and a myriad other useful applications, the telephone, the telegraph. The world changed, fundamentally, and the way we all lived and thought and behaved and believed changed with it. This place has the telephone used in the first transcontinental phone call - how cool is THAT? And how suddenly astonishing and somehow almost unbelievable it is to equate this to the way we take it all for granted today, that we can call somebody in Japan or in Germany and be instantly connected, that we all wander around glued to our cell phones. It is almost impossible to believe that it was still pretty much at the ragged edges of living memory that such things were Pure Unadulterated Magic...

This whole thing led to The Wireless Age: The Rise Of Radio". Again, it is difficult to imagine a time when radio contact was not a given. This particular gallery has a room dedicated to the event which helped to bring radio and its blessings into the forefront of human endeavour and imagination - the Titanic disaster, and recordings of the radio distress call placed by the ship as it met its epic end in the icy ocean. This is a living moment of history; listen to the tinny crackling voice on the recording, close your eyes, you're there, you're with that proud ship as it begs for help, your heart can't help but beat faster. You learn - first-hand, from a moment so long ago - what it means to be IN CONTACT, what it means not to be alone. Electricity did this. Radio did this. The science of the human race and kindred did this. WE did this. You listen to the last cries of the Titanic and you... you feel... proud. Yes, it sank. Yes, lives were lost. But we were only in our infancy when it came to radio and distance communications at the time. These days we can track a ship or an airplane in trouble, we can communicate with miners trapped a mile under ground, we can talk to the stars - think about the fact that the instructions to the Rovers of Mars were sent to the machines through interstellar  interplanetary space after they were launched - they had to launch the Rovers in a given launch window or not at all, the software was not ready, so they launched the hardware into space and sent the software after, to follow. And the Rovers heard, and obeyed. We've come a long way from the Titanic, baby. But we had to start somewhere...

And we started by adopting this whole new technology, as a given, as our due, and we built a civilisation on it - Radio Enters the Home. News broadcasts. Cultural events. The harbigingers of "War of the worlds". By the end of the twenties almost two thirds of American households owned a radio set... and we were on the threshold of something else altogether.

The Golden Age of Radio. This particular gallery shows off the radio sets which were so much part of an average household - the kind that even I (pipsqueak that I am) begin to remember clearly. The large sets with woven yellow rattan kind of frontages, the large black bakelite knobs you turned to tune the thing (and the whine and crackle of static as you rolled across the airwaves seeking the frequency you wanted). The very special sound that makes you pinpoint the age of a broadcast, even if they WEREN'T playing Glenn Miller and "In The Mood". They crowd the shelves of the museum, these radios, some of them large enough to be free-standing pieces of furniture on their own. And already they were becoming obsolete, because a new thing was coming... TELEVISION. Poor old radio could not compete. Oh, it's still around - but it isn't the same thing that it was all those years ago. Looking at these magnificent specimens, we're straddling Then and Now, one foot firmly in the twenty first century as our cellphones slumber in our pockets and one ankle-deep in nostalgia, washing around our toes like the ocean on our first sight of the sea - just as memorable, just as intoxicating, a part of our shared past and our shared curiosity as a species, our history disappearing into the static as the knobs are turned and each new shining discovery is superseded by the next incredible and amazing thing that we have managed to put together, to comprehend, to find uses for. We really can be something special when we set our minds to it. Sometimes, in a place like this, there seems to be absolutely no limit to human ingenuity and determination and imagination. There is NOTHING we cannot, eventually, do.

We've just proved it. We've walked our way through history and an accumulation of knowledge and understanding, we started out with ancient Greeks and Ben Franklin collecting lightning and we ended up at the age of television. All under this one roof. All in the space of maybe an hour or two or three (depending on how much time you spend at the exhibits, how much and how long and how often your sense of wonder is engaged.

You've spanned several ages of human endeavour. And you step out again, into the real world, feeling just a little intoxicated with it all. It's AMAZING. And it's all right here, in little old Bellingham by the sea, unexpected and invigorating and wonderful.

But let me leave you with a story about another aspect of the museum - its sense of playfulness.

You see, it boasts... a theremin. And the last time we were there, the theremin had been discovered by an adventurous four-year-old who had found out that the thing made WONDERFUL noises when he waved his arms at it. And he was waving his arms at it with great glee. We know the kid's name was George because his father kept on yanking him away from the wailing theremin with a recurring refrain of, "No! George! Stop that! George! Stop it! Come back here! George!" But somehow, despite the assault on the ears, it seemed oddly appropriate, after all. The kid was acting for ALL of us. He had come into a place where astonishing things lay piled on shelves all around him, and he had discovered... joy. And it was your joy, too. And you could not help smiling, watching him leaning into the theremin, his small face wearing the biggest grin you've ever seen. Look at me, it said, that smile - I am a child of miracles, and I will play with all the joy and wonder I know how to muster.

And perhaps that was a good envoi for us all. The world is a place where we trip over impossible dreams with every step that we take.

Sometimes it takes a museum to make you remember that.
Tags: month of museums
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