Travel: The Museum of Classic TV Sets
Old television sets can be just as awkwardly beautiful as old television shows
What would you make a television set look like if you had never seen one? Early innovators in the medium faced that question, and in an era when technical methods and standards kept changing, their answers were widely divergent, from octagonal frames, mirrors, and transparent housing to porthole shapes, spinning disks, and pop-up lids. Once television became standardized and commonplace, most receivers ended up as simple boxes, but in the 1950s, just as today, a few managed to break that pattern. Examining the development of these sets is a fascinating way to look at the history of TV, and perhaps the world’s greatest collection can be found at Toronto’s MZTV Museum of Television.
The museum gets its initials from Moses Znaimer, a longtime innovator in Canadian television, who assembled the collection. He emigrated from Tajikistan to Montreal as a boy in 1948. Beginning in 1972 with a station called Citytv, Znaimer has brought special-interest channels and interactive methods to a marketplace once dominated by the monolithic Canadian Broadcasting Company. Today, in his mid-sixties, Znaimer continues to innovate.
With a background like his, you’d expect Znaimer to be enthusiastic about the medium, and indeed he is. Perhaps taking his first name a bit too seriously, Znaimer has given the world “10 Commandments of Television,” though in truth they are more pronouncements than commandments. (A typical example: “Television is the triumph of the image over the printed word.”) Znaimer began collecting televisions in the late 1960s after paying a visit to Peter Goldmark, the head of CBS Laboratories, who had previously invented the long-playing record and a practical method for color television. While he was in Goldmark’s office, an old television set standing in the corner captured his attention.
“I came away that day having seen the most beautiful television ever made,” he writes. It was the Philco Predicta “Pedestal” of 1958, which now serves as the MZTV Museum’s trademark image. Znaimer bought one, then acquired other Philco Predicta models, and his days as a collector had begun. He had the good fortune to start at the right time, when many early TV sets were old enough to be junk but not old enough to be antiques.
We have a core number of about 150 sets, which are the best and most historic,” says the MZTV Museum’s “producer,” Michael Adams. “Our collection is another 100 strong, including duplicates. We’ve restored 98 percent of our electronic television sets with original parts.” About 35 to 40 sets are on display at any given time, in a variety of exhibits that the museum rotates every 6 to 12 months.
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“Our collection very easily could be three or four times the size,” Adams adds. “We have people, on almost a daily basis, e-mailing the museum, wanting to donate TV sets. We can’t acquire all of them, and we don’t want to acquire all of them. We only want significant television sets that help tell our story.”
The MZTV Museum had its genesis in 1992, when Adams and others curated an exhibit on the history of television for the twentieth anniversary of Znaimer’s Citytv. “In the process of getting the 30 or so TV sets together for that exhibit,” Adams says, “we learned an awful lot about the evolution of television.” Four major exhibits followed between 1995 and 1998 at museums around Canada. Finally, in April 2002, the collection gained a permanent home when the MZTV Museum opened in downtown Toronto.
The museum includes historically significant televisions—such as the RCA sets from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which introduced television to the masses—and others that are important only by association, such as Marilyn Monroe’s personal set, a 1957 Magnavox, for which Znaimer paid $29,900 American. The oldest set is a 1928 General Electric Octagon model, which was used for experimental broadcasts in New York City and in the vicinity of GE’s plant in Schenectady, New York. Some sets in the collection, which extends to the present day but concentrates on sets from the 1920s through the 1970s, have the kind of spaceage design one would expect from a technology that cut its teeth covering rocket launches. Others were made to look like fancy furniture—an important consideration in the early days, when programming was broadcast only a few hours a day and sets went unused for long stretches.
Znaimer likes to point out that there are fewer pre–World War II televisions still in existence than Stradivarius violins (around 500 of the latter). A few other individuals have collections that rival his, and some of them can even be viewed by the public, but these tend to be bare-bones operations. The MZTV Museum is the only collection that treats television in a way that is worthy of the medium itself. By comparison, there are at least a dozen major computer museums in North America alone.
While the heart of the museum is its collection of sets, it also contains publications, advertising materials, spare parts, instruction manuals, lunchboxes with characters from TV shows, and many other artifacts, including the original Felix the Cat doll that was used in RCA’s early broadcasts, beginning in 1928. (The doll on display in the museum, also from 1928, is a replica; the actual Felix is taken out only for special occasions.) The intent is to illuminate the interplay between television and society with sets and other artifacts, instead of with tapes of old shows, as in most television museums. As Adams says, “We’re doing something that is unique, something that should be done in more places around the world. There should be more museums like us, studying television, giving media education a physical point of reference.”
Richard Sassaman is a freelance writer in Bar Harbor, Maine. He has previously written for Invention & Technology about Lionel trains and Mason jars.