The Enfield Exchange: Sharing National Communications Collections and Local Knowledge

Lead Research Organisation: Science Museum Group
Department Name: Science Museum Research


The Science Museum, like all other museums, holds objects and archives which have the potential to be explored and shared for their local, community meanings. One such object is a manual three-operator telephone exchange installed in the centre of Enfield Town in 1925 and in operation there until 1960. The intention of the project is to explore how returning this object to its geographical roots can empower various community groups to access and explore their heritage and their connections to an object and a place.

These interested 'community' groups are either geographically located - local to Enfield as local historians and inhabitants - or intellectually or culturally located - as telephonists (usually women) and as telecommunications specialists, enthusiasts and (often) ex BT or Post Office employees. The Museum's researchers form another (academic) community. These diverse groups can bring varying perspectives to the exploration of the meaning - cultural, community heritage - and links - technological and personal - of such an object. This project brings together these various communities, enabling encounters between them, so as to provide fruitful ways of exploring the value and meaning of this particular object and, at the same time trialling generic approaches to using material culture to link researchers and local communities. We will display the exchange equipment in Enfield Museum, close to its original location, to inspire and provoke local involvement and excitement in the objects and its meanings for the community.

This piece of telephone exchange equipment has been selected for the project for several reasons. In part, it stands as a symbol of changing meanings of telecommunications in modern societies. Virtually everyone now carries a mobile phone, but that revolution is only a little over a decade old. The manual exchange equipment we will be displaying in Enfield stands for a pre-prehistory of telephony. The penetration of telephones into people's homes was slow; they did not become ubiquitous until the 1960s, the time at which this particular exchange equipment was 'retired' to the Science Museum. It can therefore be used as a focus object for local people to reminisce and recollect how new technologies impact on everyday life. Second, telephone exchange buildings are to be found in every community, generally somewhat mysterious buildings to the majority of local populations, apart from those who worked there. In this project, different communities can share their experiences; different local meanings of the same thing. With the introduction of digital switching technologies over the last decades, many of these buildings have had to find new uses. So, although this project is focussed on the particularity of the Enfield experience, it also exemplifies general stories that apply to the whole of the UK.

For the Science Museum, this application sits squarely on the agenda of our Public History of Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (PHoSTEM) Project. This has been established to develop newly engaging kinds of display and event using the Museum's collections. Seizing the agenda of museum participation (see Simon 2010), it seeks to use collaborative approaches, including co-creation of displays, to gain insights into how lay people think about the past, and especially the past of science and technology. We have already worked with enthusiasts in our exhibition 'Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music' and with family historians in a series of articles for 'Family Tree' magazine. This current proposal represents our first engagement with local historians.

Associated outputs will aim to disseminate the findings of this new way of working via blogging, conference papers, Enfield local history societies, local Enfield magazines, peer-reviewed publication, dedicated space on the Science Museum's 'Public History' web pages and other social media.

Planned Impact

This project explores an aspect of the relationship between academically-informed Museum research into the history of technology and amateur history in a way that is designed to develop connections between the two, and therefore achieve effective impact for academic work in history of technology more widely.

There is strong public interest in the past, as is demonstrated by the significant levels of interest in family and local history; the existence of many enthusiast groups and collectors concerned with aspects of the history of technology; and the popularity of history in magazines and on television. In addition to the academic audiences described above, the outcomes of the work can therefore be expected to appeal to several distinct communities:

Amateur Historians
In Enfield in particular, the local history society members will benefit from closer engagement with the curators, other staff and collections of the Science Museum. They will be able to gain insights into the collections and individual objects, especially the manual telephone exchange, with its strong local associations. By involvement in this project, these local amateur historians will find new audiences and influence beyond the specific area of Enfield, potentially influencing local history practice nationally. The project may also link with family historians (there is often an overlap between these two groups), where ancestors have worked in telephone exchanges, or where telephony has had a distinct impact on their lives. Enthusiast groups, notably the Telecommunications Heritage Group also stand to benefit in similar ways from this research that brings interested groups together.

Museum Audiences
This research is designed to enhance the effectiveness of museum displays by providing insights into those aspects of the history of science and technology that resonate with lay people who have a developed interest in the past. At Enfield Museum, we expect the display and events to have a particular local resonance. At the Science Museum, the particularity of the Enfield 'angle' on the display will promote the more general point that every object can have a whole range of specific local meanings in addition to any universal meanings that display in a national institution may imply. These ambitions, articulated at the general level in our Public History programme, are focussed on achieving a more engaging visit for the 2.8 million people who visit the Science Museum every year.

Cultural Heritage Policymakers
The nation's museum collections contain many undisplayed objects, which represent significant unrealised intellectual capital. This project, developing new modes of display and interpretation, will provide evidence to heritage policymakers of how that potential can be released as community engagement.

Media Dissemination
The Science Museum collections are frequently drawn on by film, television and radio production companies. The Museum's curators working with the Press Office have consistently managed to gain news and features coverage for its collections, exhibitions and events. We expect to achieve local coverage in North London, and national coverage of this experimental approach to collections, especially in the specialist museum press.

Economic impacts
The project's economic benefits centre on museums themselves. If the museums become more publicly engaging through these activities, not only will dwell time increase but new audiences will be attracted to visit. This will increase revenue generated by ticket sales, museum cafés, and shops.


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Title Information Age, Museum Gallery 
Description Information Age at the Science Museum, London. A 2500 m2 permanent gallery dedicated to the history and social impact of Information and Communication technologies. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact In its first year the gallery received over 800,000 visitors, was featured in all the major press and was opened by the Queen. 
Title Information Age: six networks that changed our world 
Description This major permanent gallery looks at the last 200 years of information and communication technologies through the lens of six technological networks: • The Cable - electric telegraphy • The Broadcast - radio and television • The Exchange - telephony • The Constellation - satellite communications • The Web - computing and computer networks • The Cell - mobile voice and data networks Each network includes discrete 'transforming events' which illuminate the impact of technology on peoples' lives. There are 21 transforming events in total. The gallery includes over 800 objects, many from the museum historic collections and some that have never previously been on public display. The six networks radiate out from a central show stopping object: the aerial tuning inductor from Rugby Radio Station. This vast, wooden and cooper structure confounds visitors' expectations of modern communication and the devices we carry in our pockets. It is a powerful reminder of the vast physical infrastructure of cables, transmitters and masts which enable our connected lives, and a starting point for discussion about different types of signal and amounts of information. The gallery includes an area that displays the Enfield Telephone Exchange with interpretation and Oral histories collected as part of the AHRC funded project. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact In the first five weeks of opening since 25 October 2014, Information Age welcomed over 112,000 visitors - over 30% of all visitors to the Science Museum. This is extremely impressive given the gallery is on the second floor of the museum and in a space that was previously under populated by visitors. 
Description Through collaborative work with Enfield Museum, and through participative research with witnesses to history, we have created new interpretation approaches that appeal to a broader range of non-technical museum audiences.
Exploitation Route Use for other collaborative projects on forms of participation
Relevant for other museum looking to broaden audiences
Relevant for science and technology communication
Historians of science and technology interested in engaging broader non-academic audiences
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description This award led directly to the display of the Enfield manual telephone exchange in the Information Age gallery at the Science Museum in London. The methods for understanding and researching museum objects, developed through the award, led to an innovative interpretation approach using oral histories. The lived experience of those who worked with such historic machines provided context and broader appeal to a wide range of museum audiences.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Enfield Museums-Science Museum partnership 
Organisation Enfield Council
Department Enfield Museum Service
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We supplied a 1920s manual telephone exchange, display infrastructure and staff attendance.
Collaborator Contribution Enfield Museums supplied display space, publicity, venue for events and staff attendance.
Impact Small exhibition in Enfield; several public events in Enfield; press coverage; oral history recordings (now incorporated in Science Museum Information Age gallery).
Start Year 2012