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Chelmsford Museum opens innovative exhibition celebrating BBC centenary

Museum Exhibits

Chelmsford Museum has launched a new exhibition celebrating the BBC’s centenary and Writtle’s pivotal role in broadcasting history.

The museum collaborated with interdisciplinary artist Sian Fan and with Chelmsford’s talented local artists to explore the history of the UK’s first public radio broadcasts. Forecast22 – Broadcasting Across the Ether features digital artwork and a physical exhibition at the museum.

The exhibition launched on Friday 14 October with a preview event at the museum, where the artists and their families enjoyed the outcome of their contributions to the project for the first time.

The foundation of modern-day entertainment

The UK’s first weekly radio show was broadcast on 14 February 1922 from a former military hut in Writtle, using the call sign 2MT or ‘Two Emma Toc’. The experimental, irreverent shows proved to be so popular with audiences that they led to the creation of the BBC on 18 October 1922.

A modern interpretation of the Writtle Hut

The Writtle Hut has been part of Chelmsford Museum’s collections since the 1990s, but it is too large to be displayed at the museum in Oaklands Park and so is held in storage at Sandford Mill. To celebrate the centenary of these broadcasts, Chelmsford Museum commissioned Sian to refresh the history of the hut using modern technology. The project marks the first time the museum has collaborated with an artist to share part of its collections in this way.

Sian scanned the hut and its contents using LiDAR scanning technology. The resulting 3D scans present a grainy, almost ghostlike reconstruction of the hut, reminiscent of the static-laden, fragmented quality of the original broadcasts. 

Performances connecting 1922 to 2022

Though the events of 1922 hold enormous significance in the development of modern-day technology, the original transmissions were sadly not recorded and so little of their history is available to connect with today. The few notes and letters that survive in the archives are available to examine online, but they provide little detail about the performances that took place.

Sian looked to fill some of these gaps and revive the memories of the original shows by collaborating with local artists to recreate contemporary performances and create new, modern pieces in response to the history. The performances were recorded at the hut by local community groups and independent artists in the Chelmsford area and can be listened to as part of the exhibition.

For Sian Fan, a key element of Forecast22 has been this connection between 1922 and 2022.

"Forecast22 reflects on the events that took place within the Writtle Hut 100 years ago. The 3D scan of the hut echoes the fleeting quality of the early broadcasts, becoming increasingly hazy as you move through it, only coming into focus when viewed from a distance. In this same way the events of 100 years ago only truly align to reveal their vast significance when viewed through the passage of time.

The modern-day performances seek to bring life to the story of the hut, pulling the early broadcasts and their significance into the current moment, and examining them through the lens of Chelmsford creatives. For me, the exhibition ultimately reflects upon the importance of collaboration between creativity and technology in both Chelmsford’s past and present."

Sian Fan, Artist

Cllr Marie Goldman, Chelmsford City Council’s Deputy Leader, is delighted that Forecast22 has provided a creative platform for some of Chelmsford’s talented artists.

"It is fitting that on the 100th anniversary of the first BBC broadcasts we are able to celebrate the significant role that the Writtle Hut played in these first transmissions.

In 2022 Chelmsford continues to nurture a varied community of artists who were offered the opportunity to make new connections and take part in the story of Forecast22. It has been immensely rewarding and moving to see both established and emerging artists working to reinvigorate the links between the hut and the city, evoking the memories of 1922 through their own performances in the hut in 2022."

Cllr Goldman, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Connected Chelmsford

An immersive experience at Chelmsford Museum

Forecast22 is best enjoyed on mobile devices or in situ at Chelmsford Museum, where you can interact with a large-scale, immersive version of the exhibition. The digital artwork is available to explore alongside a display of related objects from the museum’s collections, including a replica 2MT transmitter and a YB1 transmitter – the model first used under the call sign 2LO, the BBC’s call sign.

Chelmsford Museum curator, Sarah Harvey, says the multi-layered exhibition looks at the history of the Writtle Hut through a new lens.

"The centenary of the first UK broadcasts in 2022 is important to mark as the moment that ultimately sparked the birth of the BBC.

The Writtle Hut is a small, unassuming space in which a small team of engineers created something that we now know sparked the development of radio entertainment that we continue to enjoy today.

To celebrate these remarkable events, we wanted to reflect the way the first humble broadcasts quickly developed into a global phenomenon. Working with Sian, we’ve been able to achieve this, making the hut visible and accessible beyond the borders of Chelmsford in way that we haven’t been able to before."

Sarah Harvey, Curatorial and Learning Officer, Chelmsford Museum

The supporting exhibition is on show at Chelmsford Museum until 12 March 2023 and the website will be live until 14 October 2023.

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Cherelle Nightingill
Cherelle Nightingill

Cherelle writes about Chelmsford Theatre, Hylands Estate, Chelmsford Museum, the Mayor of Chelmsford and culture and events in the city.