Museums at Night 2010: Classic gramophones at Museum of Technology, The Great War & WWII

By Culture24 Staff | 16 April 2010
A photo of old records

Museums at Night 2010: An Evening of Memories at The Museum of Technology, The Great War and WWII, Hemel Hempstead, May 14 2010

"Did you see that programme last night?" asks Rosie Hourihane, looking back on Electric Dreams, a BBC2 documentary in which a family were asked to depend on 1970s technology.

"There was a little chap on the television who said 'I like holding records more than an MP3 player.' And I thought 'whoopee, we’re not on our own here, we've got an eight-year-old agreeing with us.' Although it does make you feel a bit ancient."

You might not be able to fit them in your pocket, but the beautiful gramophones Hourihane has spent 30-odd years collecting with partner Trevor Cass are as loved as ever in an age of retro fashion.

They've got World War One turntables, classic HMV players from the 1930s and tiny pixie gramophones designed for children.

"We've got Geissler tubes, working telephones, we've got…oh goodness, what are they called?" she frets, describing the contents of their Grade II-listed Hemel Hempstead Museum of Technology.

A photo of an old gramophone with a dark red speaker

Tournaphone/Pathe Gramophone (1906). Made in Germany before the First World War, this model uses a jewelled stylus and has been converted by the Museum to play 78rpm records as well as the 90rpm Hill and Dale ones it originally took

"It's a real mixed bag, let's put it that way. We were finding things on skips that people were throwing out, and then people began to know that we were collecting, so we got stuff dumped on our doorsteps, basically."

They won official museum accreditation ten years ago, and have since started an education programme, loaning boxes out into the community.

"People come into the museum and say 'wow', and that's my favourite word," she admits, taking responsibility for the look of the displays as the "more theatrical, a bit more flamboyant" half of the pair.

"When they say 'wow' it means I've done something right. I don't just put one object into an empty cabinet and give it a label."

She is proud that the display is congested, brimming with equipment resurrected by Cass, an electronic engineer by trade.

A photo of old wax cylinders designed for a gramophone

Wax cylinders from the 1920s, made for use with the Edison Standard Phonograph

"I'm not allowed to touch them because I’m a bit cackhanded, but he'll get them working," says Hourihane. Is it an obsession? "It's definitely an easy thing to get addicted to. If you've got a slightly electronic brain, if you appreciate lovely old wooden artefacts, then it's easy to get hooked."

Hourihane says the exhibits "usually fall into our hands".

"We had a huge donation from one lady whose husband had been collecting for 30 years," she recalls. "We completely rejigged the Museum so we could put all his stuff on display."

Much of it was quackery – medical frauds sold by fake doctors in Victorian times. "You've heard of snake oils, it was that sort of thing. You'd go and sell this machine to someone and tell them it would cure them of everything, and of course it wouldn't."

A photo of an old turntable in an oak display case

A 1930s model of the classic HMV gramophone is one of the beautiful players you can ask the Museum experts to demonstrate for Museums at Night

Picking a favourite is tricky. "I do happen to like the Edison Standard Phonograph," she decides. "That more or less started the whole gramophone thing off. It dates back to the 1900s, played on wax cylinders. It makes a wonderful noise."

The Museum only opens for a couple of hours once a week, so Museums at Night is a chance for something different.

"It's another way of marketing ourselves, getting people in who might not go to Heritage Open Days or who work all day," says Hourihane.

"It'll be a much more relaxed atmosphere. We’ve got two reasonably-sized rooms – it gets very friendly when you get more than 12 people in each room."

A photo of an ancient brown phonograph

The first commercially produced record player, the Edison Standard Phonograph, remains one of Rosie Hourihane's favourite exhibits at her Museum

She's hoping the weather will allow visitors to spill out onto the streets, sated with wine and nibbles.

"It's a lovely, creaky old building, and people can just come along and say 'ooh, I remember that' or 'my dad had one of those'," she says.

"Actually, they might say 'oh dear, I threw that away last week.' We could scream when that happens."

Open 7pm-10pm. Admission free, visit the Museum online for further details, more pictures of exhibits and sound recordings.

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