September 11, 2014
Read All About It: new exhibition celebrates the history of newspapers
by Zeljka Marosevic
Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, except when it comes in the form of an exhibition celebrating the inky history of newspapers. Monday night saw the London opening of “Newseum,” a new exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery which brings together over two hundred years of The Times newspaper’s archive materials. Curated by Dylan Spencer-Davidson, the exhibition has already travelled to Cheltenham, Manchester and Bristol, taking with it the biggest headlines, scandals and scoops since 1785.
Arranged by theme, playful installations involving video, illustration and image as well as archive photos and objects, investigate how journalists and editors have made world events into news for the past two centuries. These include reporting abroad, from the sea, under censorship and in secret, telling the stories behind the biggest stories.
We learn about how newspapers survived rationing during WW2 by pooling reports and photographs, how The Times managed to be the first to break the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb (it involved a record expenditure on donkey hire), and how carrier pigeons were intercepted during the Boer War (after which followed the note: “Thank The Times’ Correspondant for a basket of nice fat pigeons’).
While the exhibition charts the progression from typewriter to Twitter, those pining for print can even print out a Times cover from any date over the last two centuries. Many visitors were charmed and disappointed that the very first front covers are free of images and pretty much any real news as we know it today, instead reporting on significant births and deaths in tiny, almost illegible print.
I spoke to the curator, Dylan Spencer-Davidson, about the exhibition.
What prompted the exhibition?
In 2013 the former deputy editor Keith Blackmore came up with the idea of opening up the Times’s archive to the public. The Times was first printed in 1785 (then as the Daily Universal Register), so its archive contains artifacts relating to many of the most important historical events of the last 229 years. Most of these artifacts were previously only available to researchers and archivists – so the exhibition was mainly motivated by a desire to share many of the remarkable stories hidden away in the archive.
What were your starting points when you began to curate the show?
The archive is huge, containing documents relating to all parts of the news reporting process – there is really an endless number of exhibitions that could be made about it. Early on, the decision was made to focus this exhibition on one part of the whole operation, namely getting foreign news back from where it happens to the newsroom. Nowadays you have satellite phones, easy internet access and mobile phones, but before these existed, reporters were using carrier pigeons, runners, coded telegrams and heliographs (a device consisting of two mirrors on a tripod used to send Morse code messages over long distances).
What story are you telling as one moves through the exhibition?
It’s the story of how the process of news reporting has changed in the last two centuries. For me the first step was teasing the stories out of the documents – I spent hours talking to the Times archivists trying get an understanding of the significance of each artifact, while hunting for the best stories, often having to make very difficult decisions as to what include at the expense of what else.
Part of the exhibition’s beauty is the physicality of the archive. As the archive moved to the present day and digital production, did the objects disappear?
The old objects do have a certain charm: the Williamson camera which was the first to take pictures of Everest definitely has a special presence, as do the Olivetti typewriters, and the telex machines with paper tape. But then in 2014 you have satellite phones, laptops and dongles. There are probably more physical tools and gadgets of the trade than ever. And then of course there’s the notepad, which has proven to be one of the most enduring tools of the trade, still used by every journalist today.
Do you have a favourite piece in the exhibition?
While putting together the exhibition together I was handed a notepad that had been found in a drawer, belonging to Giles Whitell (a Times leader writer). He had used it in Haiti, when covering the earthquake in 2010 and on one page you can find the notes he scribbled down while talking to a man trapped under rubble, who asked for Giles to relay a message to his wife (which he did). It’s an incredibly moving object, and one that we had stumbled on by complete chance. I think it’s a stirring example of a story behind the ’story’ – it’s not a journalist’s job to recount their own personal experiences, but it means we too rarely hear of the extraordinary lengths they go to when bringing readers an accurate account of important events.
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.