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On the crest of a wave

Want to find out about the Internet and try surfing it yourself? Maureen McTaggart visits the Science Museum's touring exhibition.

Surfing has always been associated with bleached and bronzed Baywatch types, who strut their stuff on some far-off beach. But now anyone, from computer nerd to Mr Universe, can ride the big one without risking life or limb. This is thanks to the Internet where "surfing" is computer-speak for browsing on the information superhighway.

But don't worry if you still haven't cruised the superhighway or taken part in what has become a boom leisure industry for techno-hippies, you are not alone. And although the information superhighway was mentioned 92 times in national broadsheet newspapers in 1993 and 1,379 times in 1994, making it one of the hottest topics of discussion in the media, opinions are divided. Is the Internet the superhighway? Will the superhighway ever exist and will it make any difference to your life when it does?

These and other questions have prompted the Science Museum to explore the potential of the Internet, the global network of computers considered by its aficionados as the most important development of the 20th century.

According to Jo Quinton-Tulloch, a member of the team responsible for putting together the Science Museum's current exhibition, they were interested in finding out exactly what was behind all the hype.

The museum is inviting visitors to take part in a live demonstration called Surf City, part of a five-month long Science Box Information Superhighway exhibition, sponsored by Oracle and BT. The exhibition started in April and runs until September 3, when it will go on a tour to Manchester, Wales, Cornwall, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire and Northern Ireland.

With its nine-strong group of computers hobnobbing with the thousands that already make up the Internet's World Wide Web family, the exhibition sets out to explain what we can expect from the new technology. Surf City lifeguards like Aireni, are always on hand to demonstrate what she is sure "will be the mother of all highways that allows computers to feed off each other to give easy access to interactive multimedia, creating an exciting way of getting information". The superhighway gives instant access to CDs and computer programs on the other side of the planet.

At the click of a button you can teach yourself Jamaican Patois, order a pizza or clothes, consult a doctor, take a backpack into the Sahara Desert or research any subject using libraries all over the world, without leaving your chair.

However, not all the exhibits in Surf City will be joining the tour. The PCs running Netscape Navigator browser software will be left behind, but visitors outside London will still have the chance to get a taste of the World Wide Web from interactive touch-screen displays. Jo Quinton-Tulloch says, "Visitors to sites outside London will miss out on the live demonstration of Surf City because the high cost of installing such a facility means each site will be responsible for raising the necessary funds which is not an easy task".

Following on the heels of the exhibition and the other 150 museum Web sites already in existence, the Science Museum has now launched its own World Wide Web pages of information collated from its sister museums, the National Railway Museum in York and the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford.

Far from replacing visits, queues and admission charges, the 170 pages, which will be continually updated, are designed to whet appetites by providing only basic information on its collections and scanned-in photographs of some of the more delicate artefacts, together with admission details. QuintonTulloch maintains it is a good way to display the other 90 per cent of the museum's collections usually kept in storage because they can't all fit in display cases at any one time. "Anyone with access to Internet, whether they are the schools, researchers or academics, can tap into the museum's educational facilities by browsing or surfing from one museum to another," she says.

At the moment sex is one of the Internet's most popular subjects and there have already been prosecutions for pornography. The question of consorship has been raised several times, but as no single organisation controls the Internet it is very difficult to police. Of course you don't have to peek, though as Aireni says: "Teachers are well advised to peer over young shoulders from time to time just to make sure."

The Internet contains so much information that it might not be possible to discover all the sites available the extent and variety of information within reach is hard to believe. Time to start surfing.

Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD. Tel 0171 938 80808008. Open 10.00am - 6.00pm seven days a week

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