Expert Opinion

Martian invasions and other tales: telling stories in museums

Dr Rachel Connor, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Leeds Beckett, is currently involved in a research project at Harvard University, where an extract of her BBC 4 radio drama is featured in an exhibition ‘Radio Contact: Tuning in to Politics, Technology and Culture.’

She wrote about her first trip to Harvard back in April. Recently returned from her second visit, she reflects on the enduring power of stories and the far-reaching effect of radio.

In October 1938, the American radio channel CBS aired The War of the Worlds, a new play from production company Mercury Theatre on the Air, directed and narrated by Orson Welles.  A Hallowe’en special, the live broadcast aired in segments across one evening, an evening that would go on to make radio history.

The play is based on the 1898 science fiction novel by H G Wells, which tells the story of a Martian invasion in the south of England. Transposed to the United States, the 1938 radio adaptation (written by Howard E Koch) took the form of fictional news bulletins. So realistic were both the script and Orson Welles’ delivery - so the story famously goes - that the American public were sent into a blind panic, with listeners attempting to escape towns and cities in the belief that the invasion was actually happening.

What this event illustrates is the inherent power of good stories: that made up things, well told, can feel real. It reveals, too, their fluidity and resilience, their ability to be adapted to different cultures and times, and for different audiences: in this case, from a late Victorian England on the brink of a new century, to pre-Second World War America embracing rapid technological advancement.

The War of the Worlds is currently enjoying a further afterlife in Harvard’s ‘Radio Contact’ exhibition, which spans the technology and culture of radio from its invention through to the present day. It is included, along with other iconic dramas from the 1930s and 1940s (a detective fiction from Sherlock Holmes; mystery serial The Shadow) and my own play, The Cloistered Soul, in the ‘Foley station’ - an interactive installation, in which visitors can listen to the scripts and choose from ordinary objects (a teacup, a pair of shoes) to add their own soundscape to enhance the pre-recorded extract. The activity is designed to emulate the work of the sound recordists (Foley artists) during the era of live broadcasting.

In the exhibition - as in the discipline of the History of Science itself - knowledge is generated through material culture, through the study (in the words of co-curator Devin Kennedy) of ‘well worn things’ that ‘tell multiple stories.’ Objects, in this context, prompt memories; they reveal a storehouse of personal histories. This became apparent during my recent visit, where I spent time doing qualitative research conducting interviews with visitors to the museum.

Visitors frequently felt a direct and personal connection to the history of radio. This was prompted in part by the soundscape installation that played throughout the exhibition space, a montage of adverts, news bulletins, sports reports, interviews and other broadcast material. Stories were also triggered by the artefacts themselves. Many recognised the General Electric portable transistor radio, for example, dating back to the late 1950s/early 1960s, forgetting - in many cases - that they had ever owned one until they saw it in the exhibition. One visitor recalls having hers clamped to her ear on the journey to school in the way that, these days, we might use headphones. She has a vivid memory of waking up the morning after Bobby Kennedy died, hearing the news from her pillow, where her radio was tucked underneath.

Adding sound to the recorded dialogue of the play scripts in the Foley station facilitated another kind of immersive engagement; as one visitor put it, ‘you become part of the narrative.’ You are drawn in to the larger web of the story, feeling an active connection to its cultural heritage, its setting or story world. Part of my research for this project is to unearth the nature of that connection. How does the clash of language and things, when harnessed in an interactive way, prompt learning about technology, culture and history? And in what ways do objects stimulate multiple intelligences, whether synthetic, creative, emphatic or kinetic?

The distinctive nature of radio is its ability to be at once intimate (transmitting into the ear of the individual listener) and far reaching (transmitting to an audience of many). It is fitting, then, that a small exhibition in a university museum in Cambridge, Boston should have such a global reach - extending the boundaries of research across the Atlantic as well as across the disciplines of History of Science, heritage studies and creative writing practice.

More from the blog

By Professor Susan Watkins + 1 more
26 Nov 2018
All blogs