Museum of Communication, Bern, Switzerland

Jakob Messerli

Director

Museum of Communication, Bern, Switzerland

Helvetiastrasse 16, CH-3000 Bern 6

www.mfk.ch

The Museum of Communication was founded in 1907 as the Swiss Postal Museum in Berne and became the Swiss PTT Museum by the middle of the 20th century. In the wake of the lib-eralization of postal and telecommunication services in the 1990ies the Swiss Postal and Tele-communication Administration handed over its museum to the newly founded «Swiss Foun-dation for the History of Postal Service and Telecommunications». The foundation under pri-vate law is subsidized one half each by Swisscom and Swiss Post and changed the museum’s name in 1997 to Museum of Communication. The name Museum of Communication is also its program: during the last ten years the museum has been transforming from a technology-oriented corporate museum to a museum of cultural history that has a broad understanding of the term communication. Today the Museum of Communication is the only museum in Swit-zerland devoted exclusively to communication and its history, with a focus on man rather than technology. The museum’s program centers on questions regarding the social and cultural implications of communication and the associated technology. The Museum of Communica-tion provides a context for discussion of the past as well as the present and future of commu-nication, based on the Museum’s extensive collections on the postal service, public transpor-tation, philately, telecommunications, radio and television, computer and new media, art and communication, graphics as well as photography, film and video.

The Museum of Communication’s staff comprises today 20 full-time positions. It shows on 2’150 square meters of exhibition space 3 different permanent exhibitions:

  • so near and yet so far: People and their Media (900 square meters)
  • As Time Goes Byte: Computing and Digital Culture (600 square meters)
  • Imagery that Sticks: The World of Stamps (300 square meters)

In addition to the permanent exhibitions the Museum of Communication presents every year a different temporary exhibition (350 square meters). In 2008 the Museum of Communication attracted some 84’000 visitors.

The exhibition «As Time Goes Byte: Computing and Digital Culture»

After 1997 the former PTT Museum had to reinvent itself as Museum of Communication. Most important in this process was the complete renewal of the museum’s permanent exhibi-tion (2000–2007). The award-winning exhibition «As Time Goes Byte: Computing and Digi-tal Culture» has been part of this process. Practically no other innovation has changed human life more fundamentally in the last 50 years than the computer. During this period of time, digital technologies have not only made calculating more simple but have in the meantime also entered into all areas of everyday life. In particular, communication has been strongly affected. For this reason, the Museum of Communication has devoted a permanent exhibition to the computer and the digital culture, for the first time in Switzerland providing a compre-hensive survey of the history of the computer and the digital culture. It shows the develop-ment of the last 50 years from the main frame machines for specialists right through to the present equipment, for everyone and everything.

Work on «As Time Goes Byte: Computing and Digital Culture» started at the end of 2003. In a first phase (2 years) the museum developed together with a Canadian company (GSM De-sign, Montreal) a masterplan for the exhibition: Content, key messages, narrative threads, key objects, visitor’s emotional and cognitive experiences, zoning, media and the scenographic and museological approaches were broadly discussed and eventually determined. In a second pase (1½ years) the eventual planning, designing and constructing of the exhibition and of all the audio-visual media were done by several Swiss companies. This specific proceeding in planning and realising the exhibition allowed to profit from both the North American visitor orientation and the Swiss quality in design. The exhibition opened May 12, 2007 and is planned to last for at about 10 years. Members of the project team at the Museum of Commu-nication were Jakob Messerli (director), Beatrice Tobler (Curator of the Computers and Digi-tal Culture Collection) and Rolf Wolfensberger (Curator of the Photography and Audio-Visual Collections). The budget for «As Time Goes Byte: Computing and Digital Culture» was a total of CHF 2.5m (€ 1.7m).

  1. Theme: The exhibit interprets the history of computer technology and, from a broader per-spective, the history of digital culture in general in novel ways. The focus lies on milestones of the scientific and technological development of the last 50 years that build the background of emerging phenomena which form what is defined as the pervasive digital culture of today in Switzerland.
  2. Audience: Various front end evaluations have lead to an exhibition concept that does not only reach diverse special interest groups (e.g. information scientists, devotees of retro com-puting, etc.) but especially and first of all the broad public (families, schools) at a low thresh-old of access. These audiences are addressed on different museographical and didactical lev-els and via specifically designed supporting educational programs (e.g. DigiNews: cf. below 5.).
  3. Content: The exhibit follows a clear structure that is easily legible. It is divided into various thematically and chronologically organized chapters and never looses its thread. Embedded in the general history of the technological development and the impact of computing since World War II are the numerous not so well known but nevertheless quite influential contribu-tions of Swiss scientists and enterprises. Here the exhibit offers many surprising insights with a lasting memory effect via displayed unrivalled artifacts from the museum’s collection and audio-visually conveyed context information. How ubiquitous computing has not only chan-ged the everyday life in an unprecedented way but most of all has affected the way we com-municate has been carefully researched and is for the first time in Switzerland presented in a coherent and innovative way. The exhibit serves as an inspiring role model for further histo-riographic research.
    To cope with the rapid changes of the development of information and computer technologies a special platform is part of the exhibit where the latest achievements in the fields of elec-tronic and digital art, applied sciences, entertainment industry and gaming culture, etc., are thematized in short temporary exhibitions embedded in «As Time Goes Byte: Computing and Digital Culture».
  4. Design: The exhibition's design and architecture with its technological feel and the lighting concept provide the sensual framework that appropriately wraps the exhibit’s objectives in form and content and gives the visitor an all-embracing experience. Visitors are free to follow the offered thread or they can move through the exhibit on their own choice. Informative tex-tual, audio-visual and interactive elements help in a deliberately playful manner to convey the exhibit’s topics and structure.
  5. Resources: The exhibition as such is self-contained and self-explanatory. Visitors are happy to discover the offered attractions by themselves. «As Time Goes Byte: Computing and Digi-tal Culture» stands in close connection, as regards contents, with another section of the per-manent exhibition of the museum dedicated to the history of communication in general, titled «so near and yet so far: People and their Media». A floorplan and a brochure help visitors to gain a general overview. The museum offers also special guided tours by a professionally instructed team. Part of the didactic efforts is the special «digi-news» workshop which takes place in the exhibition space (cf. www.digi-news.ch). The workshop is part of a substantial didactic program with a lot of teaching materials that can be accessed on the museum’s web-site (cf. www.mfk.ch/bvdokcomputer.html?&L=0). For school classes the museum provides as well sets of iPod Touch allowing a playful discovery of the exhibition through a play based on the well known TV show «Who Wants to be a Millionaire?».

The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) honored «As Time Goes Byte: Comput-ing and Digital Culture» with the 2008 Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits with this explanatory statement:
«Computers form a major part in the collective memory and imagination of most citizens in the industrialized world. These remarkable machines have changed how people live and work in fundamental ways, yet the compelling story of this critical technology is difficult to display and interpret in a museum setting, especially to a lay audience. Explaining the concepts, func-tioning, power, limits, and development of computers to non-specialists beyond a simple, progress-oriented narrative is a challenging endeavor. In a typical exhibit, computers appear as silent objects encased in a metal or plastic box, perhaps with an attached screen and key-board. Rarely do they function; they are inert, lacking the visual appeal of a steam engine, a spinning jenny, or an early modern clockwork. The Museum of Communication in Berne, Switzerland, has […] overcome virtually all the possible obstacles previously encountered in presenting the story of this vital technology. This is a remarkable accomplishment, especially as the exhibit is directed specially towards a broad audience, particularly families and schools.»

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