Meet the curator- Campbell Bickerstaff

Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski © Powerhouse Museum all rights reserved
Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski © Powerhouse Museum all rights reserved

Name
Campbell Bickerstaff

What is your speciality area?
I don’t know if I have found it yet. A specialty sounds like the dish you’re best known for. Many would associate curator with expertise which implies a very deep knowledge of a relatively narrow field – like “Building Hexagonal Perovskites Based on Large B-Site Cations for Advanced Materials Applications”.

There is no doubt that knowledge has built up over time spent researching in my designated specialty area – information and communications technology, but I prefer to think of myself as a knowledge broker of some sort – in other words you just get good at research – if I don’t know the answer I know who does or where to find it.

I am usually the one people come to when they need help with technology that is used to capture, store, transmit or receive information. I got very interested in Olivetti for a while as their corporate identity and product design and development methods were highly successful and imitated by other multinationals – especially the work of Macello Nizzoli. More recently I have been researching materials, technologies and social histories tied to audio production and high fidelity.

How long have you been working at the Museum?
12 years

What is your favourite object in the collection?
The Sharp GF-777Z portable stereo cassette and radio player. Commonly referred to as a boombox or Ghetto Blaster the latter referring to the geographical epicentre of its popular use and a colourful reference to its musical amplification factor. It was also known to many in a more satirical or endearing frame as the Bronx Briefcase.

Two distinct types of portable music devices were used in the 1980s, one being almost the anathema of the other, the Walkman and the boombox. The two were used in very differing ways; the walkman as an extension of the user’s private space; the Ghetto Blaster for performance in public space. This factor in the boomboxes appeal is also driven by the communal nature of their enjoyment outside of the confines of the home where the style and level of the music played may have been prohibited.

The Ghetto Blaster was used to play mix tapes or records (through a dedicated phono input) quite loudly so a small gathering could be entertained. The music was sometimes accompanied by rapping (through a mixed microphone input with built in echo effect). This entertainment may in turn have been augmented with highly stylised street dancing or breaking – a form that borrowed and reciprocated moves extensively from popular culture performers.

The Ghetto Blaster evolved as a consumer product over the last years of the 1970s and its golden age is arbitrarily framed around 1981 – 1985. This particular box is regarded by the boombox cognoscente as the holy grail of all boomboxes. This accolade may be attributed to its size (752mm wide x 379mm High x 166 deep), weight (12.2 kg without 10 D cell batteries), amplification power (90W with 4 amplifiers driving 6 speakers (2 x 16cm super woofer, 2 x 16cm woofer and 2 x horn type tweeters) and dual cassette drives. It also features on the reverse of Run DMC’s debut album.

I also find I am entranced by a variety of materials, objects, designs or technologies. It’s a kind of fascination that is either there or not. Sometimes it is connected to the people that used them and their stories or the function performed or some fabulous design solution. I am also attracted to objects that stir up a certain melancholy or are just damn impressive.

What piece of research or exhibition are you most proud of in your career at the Museum?
I am really satisfied by research that tends to clear up my understanding of why something was used instead of something else – research into materials and objects that reveals the superior nature of the product or technology or design and how it came to be the preferred method or solution or choice. An example of this would be the triode – a glass vacuum tube with three elements that amplifies signals – it is also the most linear amplifier known. Understanding of it only came after a thorough investigation of its design, application, testing and appreciation. This appreciation of the triode evolved into a wider study of the enabling technologies, recording practices, production, manufacture and playing of high fidelity records.

Note from the editor: This boombox has now been acquired! Check it out here. It’s on current display in the 80s exhibition!

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