Technology is radically changing the face of British museums. Chris Johnston investigates how two are going digital to make visits more fun and finds out why more are developing innovative websites
For many years, if you wanted to hear your favourite songs, you could buy a scratchy vinyl record or a poor-quality cassette. For the younger among us, such things are hardly even a distant memory as digital technology has brought a clinical cleanness to playback. Compact discs give high-fidelity sound in a handy format, while digital recording is now available to the masses with minidiscs.
It is entirely appropriate, then, that digital technology is the name of the game in the new National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, which opened at the beginning of this month.
It is the force that drives many of the exhibits and features, but visitors get the message that the centre is very much of the 21st century as soon as they set eyes on its stunning design - four interlinked stainless steel-clad cylinders.
Stuart Rogers, the centre's chief executive, says that the extensive use of digital technology will permit exhibits to be easily changed or updated - something very important in a field as fickle as pop. But it also has another purpose: making the centre a great deal of fun, just like the best pop songs.
The most dramatic exploitation of technology is found in Soundscapes, the area where a visit begins. Presented ina 200-seater round auditorium, the "exhibit" combines art and technology to create a series of atmospheres and musical environments that celebrate the diversity of popular music.
What makes the show so enthralling is the use of an "ambisonic sound system", the first of its kind in a public venue, which can create three-dimensional sound fields using 16 speakers arranged on two rings. The system can play sounds to specific areas of the auditorium, as well as move them around.
One must really experience the show to appreciate just how stunning the sound is. In some sections - particularly the gospel choir - the sound seems almost more impressive than if the singers were actually there. A spectacular light show also contributes much to the event. Three compositions have been commissioned, including a narrated programme specially for school groups.
The centre expects students to account for a significant slice of the visitor tally, and a great deal of attention has been paid to the education programme. Outreach and education manager Amanda Cookson says it aims to stimulate and inform students about the diversity of music by using entertaining and interactive tools, encourage a deeper understanding of music's role in art, science and commerce, and generally promote music-making.
The most interactive area of the four is Making Music, which examines how the music industry works with activities based around song-writing, sound recording, mixing, promotion and distribution. Many are high-tech, such as mixing your own version of tracks by Texas and Garbage, re-editing Phil Collins' concert video, or experimenting with computer graphics and fashion to design an album sleeve. And all are plenty of fun. Illustrating the musical basics is not forgotten, though, with acoustic instruments to bang, bash, pluck and blow.
An area of the centre that has proved particularly popular with preview groups is Perspectives, which contains five themed rooms demonstrating popular music's impact on society in the past and today. In Let's Dance, a bank of video screens chronicles the history of dance music, while Oh God explores the relationship between pop and religion, censorship and fan worship in a film projected on mirrored walls.
The other area of the centre, Turning Points, celebrates popular music's global and historical impact. Three giant screens show four commissioned films, while a time- line gives a comprehensive outline of musical and cultural events in the 20th century. There are also six computer terminals containing a digital version of the Guinness Rockopedia for more detailed information about musicians and genres.
Information is also available from six computer workstations that offer access to a CD-Rom library, an intranet with relevant websites and copies of all exhibition materials, to allow students frame-by-frame access. The centre hopes to set up direct digital links to provide access to the National Sound Archive and two musicians' royalty organisations - the Performing Rights Society and the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society.
Cookson says visitors can get a preview of the centre by taking a virtual tour on its website. Online activities can also be found there and teachers are able to post activities they have completed with their class after visiting the centre.
Giving access to the centre through the Internet is barred by copyright problems. Cookson says negotiating permission to use items in exhibits was difficult enough in itself. Nevertheless, creative director Tim Strickland hopes to set up a digital archive containing material from the centre's website, as well as research papers and other material in the near future.
The NCPM is something of a teacher's dream - a place as educational as it is fun. A visit will win you brownie points from students faster than you can say "go home early".
National Centre for Popular Music 0114 296 2626 www.ncpm.co.uk School and college groups: pound;4.50pound;3.50 (off-peak) Students age 16+: pound;5.50pound;4.75(off-peak). Teachers who make a group booking can make a free preview visit to the centre. The NCPM is open from 10am to 6pm every day except Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
These days, all you need to conjure up an image on a computer screen or watch a high-resolution television broadcast is a steady stream of zeros and ones. Yes folks, the future is digital. Actually, the future is already here, as the digital television companies keep telling us.
Advertising hype aside, digital technology is actually useful, even if it's only to zap pictures of little Johnny's birthday party to Aunt Mavis in Melbourne. It is also proving to be of great benefit to institutions such as museums. The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford is a prime example of how those two pesky little numbers are transforming what was always an interesting place to visit into a truly fascinating experience.
No one can doubt that the museum has been a success. Established in 1983, it quickly became the most visited museum outside London, with more than 750,000 visitors a year. In recent times, it became a victim of its own success, with the building unable to provide enough space for either exhibitions or visitors.
In 1997, a radical solution to the problem was devised: close the doors for 18 months and set up a museum in exile, while the building - once a municipal theatre - was completely revamped. There is now 20 per cent more floorspace, but Tony Sweeney, the museum's redevelopment project director, says the fact that "the world of images is going digital" was the real reason for the move. While the most obvious alteration is the spectacular 15-metre high glass facade, the additions that are not visible are more significant to the way the museum will operate.
A computer network has been created through the six floors, which supports many of the exhibits that now rely on digital technology, as well as allowing terminals to be installed just about anywhere. Sweeney says that digital media, computing and telecommunications are converging and transforming the ways we work, learn and entertain ourselves: "A museum devoted to exploring the applications and implications of these media as they evolve must also go digital."
Such is the pace of technological change today that, during the 18 months it took to complete the pound;16 million refit, developments have allowed the museum to achieve things that would otherwise have been unrealistic. What would have demanded sophisticated and expensive computer systems two years ago have been achieved at a much lower cost.
There are several new exhibitions, with the centrepiece, called Wired Worlds, a new gallery where visitors can explore the brave new world of digital media. Malcolm Ferris, curator of the gallery, explains the focus of its five sectors. The first, Seeing the World, looks at the way computers process information and extract patterns from it. It is followed by the Net World, which examines the Internet as an information resource and a communications system.
The third area focuses on the impact of digital technology on television, such as in special effects. Visitors can see the equipment used in the industry thanks to donations from post-production companies. The subject of the fourth section is computer games, which Ferris believes are more than worthy of inclusion as they are "a major popular cultural item and here to stay". The final area deals with virtual reality technologies and demonstrates the ability of computers to generate their own worlds.
There are 22 exhibits in the gallery and the museum has commissioned at least one major exhibit for each of the five domains. One, devised by German group Art and Com, aims to make the Web manifest by using a large virtual reality projection of the globe to simulate the path taken by a request for a Web site. As well as being an examination of how technology is affecting our lives, Ferris says another aim of the gallery is to get visitors to question what is happening. "It works on several levels - there is the spectacle level, but behind that a series of questions is being asked, from the particular to the more general."
Wired Worlds features material from contemporary films, television and advertising and the digital technology behind it will make updating exhibits much easier. Ferris says this is vital in such a fast-changing field.
The benefits of new technology are also evident in other parts of the museum. A unique image database called The Investigator allows access to many items that are too fragile to display. About 3,500 images can be viewed on screen, but the museum hopes to include almost everything in time. The database terminals are located in the basement Research Centre, which houses collections such as the 1.3 million photographs taken between 1911 and 1960 for the Daily Herald newspaper and rare early film and television equipment.
Another new addition is Advertising - the Persuader's Art. About 30 award-winning television advertisements are played from DVDs on flat screens.
The TV Heaven gallery, one of the museum's most popular areas, has been enlarged and improved. Visitors can choose and watch one of more than 500 classic British television programmes held by the museum. Those wanting to gain an insight into TV production, can do so in Hands-on TV. Likewise, a news feed from Reuters will allow students to produce their own newspaper on the museum's desktop publishing equipment in the Frontlines, Headlines, Deadlines section.
Teachers will also be impressed by the extensive new education facilities, which include workrooms and media production resources. Sarah Mumford, the head of education, says the areas are intended to ensure school groups enjoy structured, productive visits. There is also a picnic area and coat and bag storage facilities. Higher on students' list of priorities, though, might be the museum's Imax cinema, now equipped with a new three-dimensional projection system.
The aim of the new museum is empowering the visitor, whether on site or virtual through its website, Tony Sweeney says. He believes this goal will be achieved when they "take up the challenge to look at things from a different perspective, or 'think again'." It's almost certain that visitors to the new museum will leave having done just that.
National Museum of Photography, Film and Television 01274 202030 www.nmsi.ac.uknmpft Entry to the museum is free. It is open 10am to 6pm Tuesday to Saturday (open Mondays for bank holidays and during school vacations). Imax theatre entry is pound;2.40 for students 16 and under and pound;4 for 17+. Advance bookings attract a 20 per cent discount. For group bookings call the education department on 01274 202040, fax 01274 772325 or email: email@example.com