Ten Questions: Computer History Museum

Computer History Museum

Last week Obsolete Gamer told you about the the Revolutions exhibit at the Computer History Museum.  This week we wanted to elaborate more on the museum itself. Obsolete Gamer had the chance to talk with Chris Garcia, curator for the museum.

First, let us take a look at the history of the museum itself.

The roots of the Museum date from the 1960s, when Gordon and Gwen Bell—with the support of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) CEO Ken Olson—initially created an exhibit of their personal collection of computing devices in the lobby of DEC in Boston, Massachusetts.  The Computer History Museum first opened to the public in 1984 under the name of The Computer Museum. Sharing exhibition space with the Children’s Museum at Museum Wharf in Boston, the Computer Museum established a history of presenting exhibitions and education programs that explored contemporary perspectives on computing culture, history, and ideas.

CHM Chairman Leonard J. Shustek, then a member of the Computer Museum board, relocated the artifact collection of the Computer Museum to California’s Silicon Valley in 1999, where it was housed at a temporary location on the grounds of the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.  This temporary site will always be known as the location where the Computer History Museum was born.  In 2002, CHM moved to its current, permanent home on Shoreline Boulevard in Mountain View when the Board of Trustees issued a $25 million bond to purchase the SGI headquarters building outright.

Since its rebirth in California, the Museum has expanded its mission from a solely exhibition-based focus to preservation and collecting. CHM is now home to the world’s largest collection of computing history materials, with over 100,000 artifacts, objects, and ephemera ranging from ancient calculating devices to the first Google server.  It draws on the availability of existing partners and financial supporters from the vast computing sector, as well as on the creativity of curators and scholars to develop immersive exhibitions, an extensive website and the Museum’s acclaimed speaker series.

Obsolete Gamer: What is the process for researching and collecting your artifacts?

We go through a thorough process of reviewing the artifacts that we are offered by donors. We start by seeing if we have anything like it in the collection, if the object is significant to the story of computer history, and how we might be able to use it in the future for exhibition or study. We also consider the condition, provenance and completeness of the specific object offered. Two objects may look incredibly similar but one represents an application of the technology that tells a better story than the other.

Obsolete Gamer: Are there computer related artifacts that you selectively choose not to display and if so why?

Any exhibit requires extensive research followed by a period of pruning down potential stories leading into the creation of a coherent story that will end up being the exhibit. There are a number of factors that determine what gets displayed, including what is available as a part of the collection, what can be borrowed from other institutions, the condition of individual artifacts, and the work that specific objects need to do in the context of the exhibit.  Every object also takes up physical space along with ideological space, which limits the amount of objects that can be used.

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a prized collection or prized artifact that you covet the most?

The biggest wish I’ve got is for a complete collection of the games of Westwood Associates / Westwood Studios. They were a significant part of the history of PC games and are often over-looked for the contribution they made with their games. Game developers can sometimes be over-looked for their role in the process in favor of the distributors and publishers, which is rough.  One thing that rarely happens is getting a full run of pieces from a company/studio/innovator/etc that allows you to do a thorough investigation between all the works and to show the complete evolution of a product space.

Obsolete Gamer: Personally, what era of computing over the last 2000 years has been the most significant to society?

It would be difficult to say that any era of computing was more significant than any other as every innovation is built upon those of previous generations, but it could be argued that the last fifteen years have featured innovation that has so greatly expanded the number of users and the ways in which computers are used as to make it the most significant. The great increase in the number of devices like the iPod and the iPhone, the greater penetration of Smart Phones and the complete integration of the internet into everyday life. These innovations have brought computers into the hands of more and more individuals, not only in the developed world, but also in parts of the world where computers had never been found before.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about the gaming portion of the exhibit?

The Computer Games gallery looks at the development of Computer Games from the 1950s through to today. We focus on many of the most significant innovations in the history of gaming such as SpaceWar!, Odyssey, Pong and the Atari 2600. The area features a selection of gaming consoles from the 1970s through 2001, many pieces of gaming software both for home consoles and personal computers. There are also four interactive stations where visitors can play classic games such as Adventure, Pong, Pac-Man and SpaceWar!.  One of the key things to me about the Gaming Gallery is that it looks at games of all kinds, but it also includes pieces of gaming ephemera to show that it wasn’t just about the games themselves, but about how they were marketed and packaged.

The Computer History Museum Logo
The Computer History Museum Logo

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a favorite exhibit, if so can you tell us which one and why?

My personal favorite object in the exhibit is a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game from Infocom. It was co-written by the author of the novel, Douglas Adams, of whom I’ve always been a great admirer. He brought the game to the museum and handed it off to me when he appeared just a short time before his death in 2001. When we started looking at what items to use to demonstrate Infocom’s games, I knew that we had to use the Hitchhiker’s copy that he’d given us. I always smile when I walk past it and see the label that reads ‘Gift of Douglas Adams’

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J.A. Laraque

J.A. Laraque is a freelance writer and novelist. His passion for writing mixed with a comedic style and intelligent commentary has brought him success in his various endeavors. Whatever the subject, J.A. has an opinion on it and will present it in writing with an insight and flair that is both refreshing and informative.