New museum houses 40,000 broadcasts

September 10, 1991|By Elizabeth Jensen | Elizabeth Jensen,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- For the last several years, Saturday visitors to the Museum of Broadcasting had to arrive by about 1:30 p.m., before the cramped quarters began turning people away because there just wasn't room.

Starting Thursday, weekend visitors to the Museum of Television and Radio, as it has been renamed, can sleep in.

The museum is opening its gleaming new 72,000-square-foot facility at 25 W. 52nd St., with nearly four times the capacity of the old building on 53rd Street, where it had been wedged in for 15 years.

"It's night and day," said museum President Robert Batscha of the old versus the new facilities. "It's now truly a world-quality institution."

Visitors who come to see Lucille Ball sitcoms or footage of the first man on the moon aren't likely to miss the old museum, with its slow elevators and 15 TV viewing consoles and eight radio/TV consoles. The new $50-million museum has 96 consoles, some big enough to accommodate families, that access recordings of either medium, as well as a radio listening room, with plush furniture, and, eventually, a radio studio.

Nor will attendees of the museum's 50 seminars a year miss the cramped 63-seat theater, where latecomers ended up sitting on the stairs.

The new building has a 90-seat theater and a 200-seat theater, both with lighting and sound equipment that can transform them into broadcast studios, allowing seminars to be transmitted to other locations.

Gone, too, is the printed card catalog. The centerpiece of the new museum is its computerized "library," where a custom-designed Macintosh system allows visitors to get information on about 20,000 radio and TV programs, and then request to see as many as six of them. An archival listing of the museum's remaining 20,000 programs, not yet integrated into the robotically controlled system, is also accessible via the computer. Programs in the archives can be viewed with 72 hours' notice.

"Unlike most museums, where if it's not on the walls, well, they're sorry but it's in the warehouse, ours is all 'hangable,'" Batscha said.

The computer is also programmed with 400 collection highlights, divided by genre, to help those visitors who in the past have been overwhelmed if they didn't know exactly what they wanted see.

The museum also has a room for scholars; gallery space for memorabilia, and 1 million clippings of newspaper and magazine articles.

There are some restrictions for those who have visions of wiling away the day looking at, say, a custom-designed "Twilight Zone" marathon; the museum will limit visitors to two hours a day (three hours for members).

Museum hours have been expanded, however, to include Sundays, as well as Thursday evenings and screenings on Friday evenings. The museum, closed Mondays, will open at noon other days; mornings are reserved for school groups.

Underlying all the whiz-bang technology is a determination to help change the way society looks at TV and radio programming.

"Television and radio are the literature of the 20th century," said Batscha, who contends that TV is on the verge of "being accepted as a creative medium."

Because of the enormous amount of TV programming, "we tend to overlook the enormous amount of quality in what's being produced," he said. The museum's collection of 40,000 radio and TV shows is just a fraction of the total 2 million TV shows alone that have been made.

About 3,000 new programs are added to the collection annually, based on historical, cultural and artistic, or social significance. That means footage and audiotapes of wars, as well as each year's top network entertainment programs.

Acquisition of the programming from networks, studios and producers is the easy part, Batscha said; more difficult is making it accessible to the public. "Exhibition costs a fortune," he said. Annual operating costs of $5.5 million will be raised by contributions (late museum founder William S. Paley left a $23-million endowment that will cover about 20 percent), a suggested $5 admission fee and annual memberships.

To inaugurate the museum, the staff has planned a year-long tribute to "Seven Decades of Radio and Television," kicking off with "Jack Benny: The Radio and Television Work."

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