Exhibit in Focus: Radio Contact

Q&A with Devin Kennedy, Wheatland Curatorial Fellow, regarding his involvement with "Radio Contact..."

Devin Kennedy at work in Special Exhibitions gallery.Q: How did you and your collaborators come up with the exhibition theme?
A: The exhibition was first conceived by a wide ranging group of curators, CHSI personnel, Department Faculty, Graduate students and affiliates and friends of the department and the collection. I entered the project just after the first decisions were made about the direction of the exhibit, and I was excited by the excellent decisions that had already been made up to that point. First, the exhibit takes advantage of CHSI’s extensive collection of radios, radio components, and research devices from the history of radio and physics in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Our collection is particularly strong because of the contributions of David P. Wheatland, who was a member of the University’s Physics department and first curator of the CHSI. Mr. Wheatland served as Faculty Assistant to Professor Leon Chaffee (whose spark gap transmitter is featured in the exhibition) and as the Assistant Director of the Cruft High-Tension Research Laboratory. Cruft itself was an important site of Radio’s development as a technology: George Washington Pierce’s crystal oscillator (1919) helped solve the problem of tuning and fixing radio frequencies for broadcast.

Second, the exhibit’s message and materials were ideal for the CHSI, which seems to me to excel in exhibits where the historical narrative is told through objects themselves. The three-part structure of the show reflects this approach, looking at radios as a historically crucial medium in the development of 20th century mass culture, a technology that inspired excitement, hacking and tinkering by enthusiasts, and a politically volatile device that could be used equally for propaganda and protest. To tell all of these stories, we found it was best to look at the objects themselves, and let viewers see how such a single invention could materialize such varied meanings.

Radio Contact Gallery

Q: There are a lot of “vintage” materials involved in the exhibit. How did you find all of these?
 A: Apart from CHSI’s own excellent collection, we are beneficiaries of an active internet community of Ham operators and radio historians who collect and catalogue antique objects from the history of the technology. For instance, while looking for reference photos of period ham radio setups, I stumbled upon an Ebay auction for an antique ham radio operator’s map (a map that shows the world but oriented to show distances from the point of the transmitter). It was an object that had been used beginning in the 1960s and reflected the actual way ham operators used their devices to create communities: it was full of pins with contacts made, QSL cards (which are the calling cards of the ham community); in short it was an object that evoked so much about the ham community. Objects like this were what we were looking for: well-worn things that told multiple stories.

Q: What is the greatest challenge you're facing in designing and mounting your portion of the exhibit?
A: I am not an expert in the history of radio; I came to the exhibit excited to learn more, but only really knowing a handful of areas on a topic that deserves expansive cultural and material history: so my main challenge was to do justice to the extraordinary community of radio historians and operators who know the technology so well. I wanted to find the stories that they would think would be important, but in a way that connected to the show’s themes, and to the imagined audience’s interest in the broader history of the technology.

Q: How important is it for you to have the visitors getting a participatory, hands-on experience, i.e. being able to sit down at the desk and being able to flip through an old manual or periodical?
A: The History of Radio is a history of people tinkering with devices and finding that they have charming and often unexpected uses. The spark gap, for instance, was initially an experimental
 technology in physics, but found commercial use in wireless telegraph transmission. When radio was first commercialized in America, it was imagined by its investors that point-to-point communication would be its major use. It was somewhat of a surprise when, over the course of the 1920s, “Broadcast” came to be radio’s characteristic charm. The Ham Radio community, likewise, is made up of individuals piecing together and often constructing and reconstructing their own equipment iteratively.

Radio is of course about sound, but the technology and the culture surrounding it is also about touch—about the tactile feel of “tuning” into the sweet spot on the dial, the right keying rhythm for sending a morse message over the air, the right tightness of a tuning coil. If you want to tell the story of a technology that has been the object of so much fiddling, hacking, and research, it’s best to do so, I think, by making the objects themselves close at hand. The exhibit tries to generate the historical atmosphere of radio’s development as a cultural technology for listening to, tinkering with, and producing sound. The hope is to immerse the visitor in the experience of the 1920s radio-filled parlor; the 1950s ham shack, and the 1970 radio studio. 

Q: Can you explain the significance of the proposed soundscape for the cultural and social context of the exhibit?
A: The subtitle of the show is “tuning in” and much of what is interesting about radio, as a medium, is that you have to search around and fine tune your receiver to find the thing you are looking for. You’re attuned to the little sounds of static and the way that stations bleed into one another. For me, I spend a lot of time driving scanning around the dial looking for something better; and then usually I end up stumbling on something altogether unexpected, more interesting that I thought. These are characteristic experiences of using radio that the soundscape, it seems to me, tries to play with: clips play in various zones of the exhibit, calling attention to various sections and themes, but only for a short time before jumping to another area, with interstitial noise that captures the dynamic, material, and haptic sensation of tuning into something on the radio. That the audience is not totally in control of the topic of the sound clip they are hearing (as one is not in the case of broadcast radio) plays into this experience even further. Finally, the exhibit tries to emphasize the different types of listening that surround the experience of radio: alone, on the road, in a group, in front of a crowd, etc. The soundscape enables a collective and highly social listening experience for the audience which was the condition of radio listening for a long time before the era of “ear-buds", as our show describes.

Q: Finally, why an exhibit instead of a more academic medium, such as an article in a peer-reviewed journal?
A: The goals of an exhibit and the materials you can use to achieve them are different
here than in an article. Here the argument is strongly tied to the visitor's experience. It depends, for instance, on the way the soundscape plays out, or the way someone’s interests pull them through the space. In such a format, the objects themselves and our positioning of them in thematic and visual relation, rather than a didactic argument, dictate what the audience receives from the show. We get to show our beautiful objects, teach something about the history of a critical technology whose cultural import lingers today, and create a unique space where audiences can see something really different.