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Crank up the digital!

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This Wednesday the University of Lancaster will be bringing a hand-cranked digital device to Brighton Museum. While the phrase ‘hand-cranked’ seldom features in descriptions of cutting-edge technology, there are very good reasons why this belongs in this year’s Brighton Digital Festival programme.

What the Butler Saw

Mutoscope in Brighton Museum

The ‘crank machine’ we will be showcasing on Wednesday is inspired by the mutoscope. Originally developed in the 1890s, a mutoscope is a device that produces simple animations. The user turns a handle to rapdily flick through a series of paper images, producing an effect similar to watching a short silent movie.

Mutoscopes rely on the user peering through a small viewer, so they can only be used by one person at a time. Many mutoscopes produced in their Edwardian heyday took advantage of this feature to present risque content. We have an original mutoscope on display in Brighton Museum’s Images of Brighton gallery which features the then notorious ‘Parisian Can Can’ dance. Even today mutoscopes are more commonly known as ‘what the butler saw’ machines, named after one popular example.

Edwardian technology

The crank machine we’ll be showcasing on Wednesday is perfectly safe for families. The content on this device will be focused on another great Edwardian invention: the double backed postcard.

Launched in Britain in 1902, the double backed postcard revolutionised popular communication. By providing a cheap medium in which simple messages could be sent alongside an accompanying image, postcards became enormously popular. At a time when a postcard could be posted in the morning and arrive by lunchtime, the Edwardian postcard anticipated the rapid sharing of text and images through socal media by almost a century.

The digitised postcards used in the crank machine come from the University of Lancaster’s Edwardian Postcard Project collection and our own postcard collections. With the help of a metadata switch, the crank machine will allow the viewer to look through themed arrangements of the two collections, bringing the texts and images together in a new form.

Interfacing the future

The crank machine was built by Adrian Gradinar of the University of Lancaster’s Physical Social Network project team. Although I have yet to try the finished version, I am intrigued by the new interaction on offer here.

Adding a mechanical handle to a computer may seem unnecessary and counter-intuitive, but it may make a lot of sense in a museum environment. Visitors navigate museums in complex and distinct patterns, and different users respond to different means of presenting information. For example, a few of our galleries feature touchscreen interactives that allow visitors to learn more about the subject of the display. But my estimate is that only about 5% of visitors ever use these — and this is hardly surprising. Only a minority of visitors are ever likely to want to know more about any given subject; many are more likely to be focused on the social aspects of their visit (such as keeping a relative or child entertained), others will be looking to relax rather than becoming highly engaged with the displays, and others will quickly suffer museum fatigue — there is already a huge amount of information to absorb.

But what if a digital interactive can become part of a spectacle? A touchscreen interactive might have seemed moderately unusual in the 1990s, but with around 80% of us owning a smart phone or a tablet these are now too common to notice. Can a mechanical handle disrupt that, by enhancing curiosity and inviting visitors to engage with the interactive?

There is also a question of intimacy. Like most medium to large museums, the main mechanism by which we present our digitised collections is through searchable databases. But these are buit around managing and presenting large quantities of data. A user has to do a fair bit of searching before they are likely to focus on a single digitised object. By contrast, the crank machine is built around intimacy, presenting a single postcard at a time, and in a format where the object becomes the user’s sole focus. Can this invite a new relationship with these historic postcards?

Test the crank machine and tell us what you think

If you can join us this Wednesday, come and have a play with the crank machine in Brighton Museum’s MuseumLab from 2-5pm. In addition to trying the machine, you can also chat to Adrian Gradinar and Julia Gillen of the University of Lancaster about their work. I will also be on hand to chat about our digitised collections, and our involvement in the project.

I’m looking forward to welcoming Adrian and Julia and their marvellous machine to Brighton this week. Although Brighton and Lancaster are opposite ends of the country, Brighton seems the perfect place to bring a device that celebrates two technologies — mutoscopes and postcards — which are often associated with the pleasurable escapism of the seaside resort.

Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager

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