1990s Britian: Don’t Look Back in Nostalgia

The 90s are a weird decade for me. I was in my twenties just about the entire time almost evenly split between Los Angeles and NYC, or undergraduate and graduate school. When I look back, it’s not in anger, but not necessarily in full blown nostalgia either. It’s more like, Oasis? Really? This exhibit could be a thinly veiled attack on 90s Brit Pop if we are not careful 🙂

Aside from bad comparisons with the 1960s, we’re starting to see 1990s nostalgia ripening these days given it has become the moment when the web went worldwide. My time at UCLA’s Audio Visual Services from 1994-1997 was my education in the web, with everything from IMDB to Doom to Windows 95 to Warez sites to MAME—it was a moment for sure. And one that started a transformation that we’ve all been living within in one way or another for the last 25+ years. So, one of the ideas we had talked about when I visited Coventry University in the Spring was updating the 80s living room for the 90s. When I was on the ground this past week, the idea was still in favor and we were even at the stage of talking details. Most importantly, there is a 400 square foot space on the ground floor of the library that the library folks are happy to provide!

90s living room space

It’s a perfect corner nook with plenty of outlets, connectivity, natural light, and space—what’s more it’s right next to the library’s main entrance so there will be tons of foot traffic. Really couldn’t have dreamed of a better space. The initial brainstorming/dreaming session I had with the Game Changers group at Coventry’s Disruptive Media Learning Lab (DMLL) was a good indicator of things to come. The group includes Helen Keegan, Sylvester Arnab, Sam Clarke, and Luca Morini and these folks have really good energy. We immediately started by trying to pin down a focused time period, and seems like Fall 1996 to Spring 1997 (exactly 20 years ago) would work. We could focus on Windows 95, PS1, Gameboy, Virtual Boy, Sega Genesis, SNES, IOMEGA Zip drives, new fangled laser printers, etc. The movie/TV world would be interesting because we would have three formats VHS, Laserdiscs, and DVDs, and interesting moment when all are viable to some degree, I guess the same would be true of vinyl, cassettes, and CDs. We also started thinking about reproducing a full blow modem connection to the web, which led Helen to dream about reproducing a kind of alternative web of the 90s. Perhaps take the Geocities archive downloaded by those dreaded “pirate libertarians” and populate an entire local network of sites for folks to surf. That would be sick, a kind of alternative web that folks can actually surf at modem speeds.


This actually led us to return to an idea raised at the earlier lunch Jonathan Shaw suggested, having various themed workshops where folks were introduced to Photoshop 4.0 or take part in an old school HTML/FTP workshop to show people how to make a website circa 1996/1997. What’s cool is we can actually run any sites created on a local apache machine using Coventry’s domain to reproduce a real-life tilde space.


Another discovery this time around was Jane Gibbs, media librarian at Coventry who recently did an exhibit on vinyl. We immediately started chatting about all sorts of things, and she even shared the slides from her exhibit about Factory Records! Great stuff.

Slide from Jane Gibbs panels on Factory Records for Coventry University Library exhibit on vinyl

Slide from Jane Gibbs panels on Factory Records for Coventry University Library exhibit on vinyl

Turns out she spent much of her time at Coventry managing the video/media collection, and seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of British TV. What’s even cooler is that in the 90s, from what I understand, Britain still predominantly had 4 TV channels, so we can program British TV across 4 channels. I wonder if there were Open University TV broadcasts? I am particularly interested in learning more about British TV, so this could be a fun part of the exhibit for me. What’s cool too, is we have a lot of people working on this exhibit, and it will build on the spirit of UMW’s Console Living Room by having everything freely available to play with and encourage the community to contribute. But even smarter than we were with the 80s exhibit, they will be capturing stories and building in era-appropriate workshops, speakers, etc.  It could truly be a “Wonderwall” of 90s nostalgia!

Another related, but independent, event that will intentionally coincide with the 90s Living Room will be an exhibit exploring the role of women in the history of video games. Jane and Luca are taking the lead on this, and it looks like the Living Room could be a refraction point for that exhibit—highlighting the mid-90s as the low-point in male-dominated shooters 🙂


Sergey Romanovsky “Entertainment at Work”

I am pretty excited to be working on another Living Room project this year with the folks at Coventry’s library and the DMLL. I can see myself gravitating towards populating a mid-90s web environment on a local network as well as exploring  programming British TV from the 90s, but the cool thing about a project like this is there is so much yet to discover and do. I guess it’s time to fire up Ebay and start hunting for some 90s paraphernalia, the added bonus being none of which should be cost prohibitive just yet because it’s just the 90s after all. Looks like I may get some usage out of the Virtual Gameboy after all!

Virtual Boy

Virtual Boy

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6 Responses to 1990s Britian: Don’t Look Back in Nostalgia

  1. dkernohan says:

    Great post Jim! The OU kept broadcasting lectures till 2006 (http://www3.open.ac.uk/media/fullstory.aspx?id=9898) in the UK so I’m sure there will be some 90s archives (though you may be thinking of Jisc’s Box of Broadcasts (BOB) service (https://www.jisc.ac.uk/box-of-broadcasts).

    Also, in 1997 we expanded to five terrestrial channels with the launch of the perennially dreadful “Channel 5” by the Spice Girls (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T9uZhrh-YA)! Enjoy!

  2. Reverend says:


    Thanks for chiming in immediately, and I can now understand the “power of 5.” That Spice Girls intro is awesome, and highlights the cultural value of this project! The Broadcast in a Box service ca, and I have not played with it yet, but it would be interesting to try and use that as the basis for the various channel programming. Not sure what the licensing issues would be given this would all be on campus, but I imagine most of the hard work of collecting the shows would be done, we would just have to cut in local commercials, which would be a blast! How did commercials work in British TV? Were programs cut up in five to ten minute intervals like the US? As for the OU, I think that will be an interesting meditation on distributed learning, and I would love to coincide one of the foundational lecture series from the 70s or 80s with a similar class at Coventry and have them experience the same subject matter delivered 30 or 40 years earlier, there could be some interesting reflections there. I am really excited about this because there is so much about the British media landscape of the 90s that is so new to me. I’m basically a passenger on this bus….oh yeah, there may be a bus at some point if Helen Keegan gets her way. But more on that anon 🙂

  3. Alan Levine says:

    I don’t know what it would take on the receiving end but it would be cool to set up connectivity via an old fashioned 28.8 modem, and set up some stations running one of the old browser emulators http://www.dejavu.org/emulator.htm

    There is an insanely detailed Wikipedia article on modem tech which was just busting out of the real slow lane in the mid 90s https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Modem

  4. Alan Levine says:

    Also see if the crazy volunteers at the national museum of computer can help with 1990s equipment http://www.tnmoc.org it’s almost a reason to go almost to Milton Keyenes

    • Reverend says:

      Yeah, I plan on experimenting with the modem setup in November when I get back from my trip. In fact I am probably gonna go on a bit of an Ebay splurge while back in America for a month, and really looking forward to it. Been a while. I haven;t been to Milton Keynes, but I decided the next trip i take to England will be for however many days work, and then Anto and the kids will meet me and we’ll do a tour. Cardiff, Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham, etc. I really want to see some of the countryside now, and we have to spend a few days in London proper because the museums are totally awesome. I’m slowly becoming a fan 🙂

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