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The fashion for technology
Humorist Danny Wallace feels embarrassed. He’s a collector – with Britain’s most extensive private collection of black and white photos of 1960s and 70s Shropshire tabletennis teams. As collectables go it’s fairly mainstream, like the family photos, engine numbers, shells, dolls’ houses, art works, stamps, telephone cards or DVDs. However, some bizarre objects are gathered – just look at the number of websites for airline sick-bags! Many theories have been suggested as to why people collect: genetics, autism, midlife crises. In Renaissance Europe the fashion was to collect curios connected with one’s work or travels. Eventually, this resulted in a house full of objects – a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ for visitors to marvel at. Often, they were never catalogued as their owners knew each item’s story. When they died, that knowledge died too. While some of the old cabinets have been transformed into museums, others still exist in their original form. One such is University College, London’s Grant Museum: in nearly 200 years, only a small part has been catalogued and, as the original donors have long since passed away without leaving details of their lovingly cared-for collections, they probably never will be. There are murky specimen jars from Thomas Huxley’s collection. But what is in them? Only he knew. Occasionally, items are identified. For example, the Grant has two ‘zebra’ skeletons. One was recently revealed as a quagga (a rare African mammal, extinct since the 19th century), while the other turned out to be a common-or-garden donkey. Nowadays, any self-respecting town or city has a modern handson, interactive technology museum. As well as being very expensive to develop and run, they raise questions about the return on such investments and the underlying politics. What, for instance, does a railway museum tell us about life as a train driver? Or, can a converted mine realistically represent life in those hot, cramped, dangerous conditions? An old telephone gives us an idea of what it was like to

handle, but no feel for its reliability or the implications of having to depend on a gossipy operator. It is also interesting that art, science and technology have often come to be located in separate institutions. Are such museums created to encourage nostalgia, amazement at what the country, and often its military services, has produced (few technology museums show products developed abroad), or are they merely competitors to theme parks? It may be that the museum format is suited only to presenting certain

types of information and limits not only how that information can be shown to visitors, but also the feasibility of classifying it effectively. Perhaps, they are really still cabinets of curiosities full of knick-knacks, resembling the fossilised versions of their modern day equivalents. Museums need to find a role. So, next time you visit one think about why you went and what you gained from the experience. And let us know your conclusions. Ralph Adam (sd324a@gmail.com)

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stereotyping is socially determined and can be avoided. So what is the IET doing to ensure that children are born into an environment where girls are expected to be equally confident, assertive and as interested in science as boys? John Talbut MIET Coalville, UK cally. It does not seem to matter which service or manufacturing sector they operate in. For example the financial sector (represented by any number of the large banks-- take your pick), oil (example BP), automotive (Toyota), electronics (example Dell, Intel under investigation), software (Microsoft Windows IE) drug manufacturing (example Johnson and Johnson). I regularly receive a stream of emails from the FDA about major drug and medical equipment recalls and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) about Consumer products that do not meet federal regulations as they contain lead, cadmium, kill children or accidentally chop their fingers off. Upon reading these alerts it appears that most of the companies were aware of the problems, but continued to ship the defective product anyway. This leads me to the conclusion, (based on the published and unpublished history), that no company is ethical. Maybe ethics is a goal that can never be fully achieved by any company or any person. I believe that attempts by companies to set up ethics committees, after they have been caught red handed (such as BAE), is just a publicity stunt and doesn’t solve anything. Ask yourself, have you ever worked for a company that is truly ethical both in the products/ services they supply to their customers or in how they treat their employees? I think your answer will be NO! Peter Brooks MIET Palm Bay, Florida

GENDER STEREOTYPING In answer to the first question posed to Jane Ali (‘Mind the (gender) gap’, Member News, June issue) she says, “I have always been captivated by the wonders of science and nature, combined with a fascination for how things work.” This is the key. How many girls would say that? The efforts put into persuading girls to go into science and engineering are always going to be largely unsuccessful if girls do not first have that basic interest in science and nature. And research shows that gender stereotyping starts before a child can crawl. Whilst (as a chartered engineer and psychotherapist) I am sure that it makes a difference whether a baby is the same sex as its mother or not, I am equally sure that most gender

PUBLICITY STUNT The following relates to two items (an opinion piece by Ralph Adam and a letter to the editor from Rashid Samnakay), contained in the June issue of Member News, which make reference to professional ethics. Over the past 18 months we have been bombarded with events that result from companies (and the people that ran them) acting unethi-

IET Member News August 2010 www.theiet.org/membernews