The Computer Museum History Center Collections Policy

From: Dag Spicer <>
Date: Wed Nov 24 10:53:11 1999

Dear Friends of Computer History,

I would like to dispel a persistent meme that recurs on this list regarding
The Computer Museum's non-destruction/sale/folding/spindling/mutilating of
computer equipment.

First, let us all take a deep breath and lower the temperature of the
issue. Epithets and insults are not only unnecessary but unkind,
unprofessional, and unworthy of the people within this group (and at the
History Center) that genuinely seek to promote computer history by
advancing solid, verifiable knowledge claims in an atmosphere of
collegiality and mutual interest.

Ok, now the issue (or non-issue, to be more precise). The Computer Museum
and now The Computer Museum History Center is a federally-registered
non-profit corporation whose mission is to preserve and promote the study
of computer history and to serve as an international resource in the
history of computing. To this end, it employs, with a very modest staff of
5 full-time persons, all reasonable and modern methods to actively collect
and disseminate computer history across five separate collections:
hardware, software, media (photos, video, films), ephemera, and
documentation. It collects broadly across time and industry with no
particular institutional, corporate, or personal axes to grind and this
ecumenism has made it a trusted source in computer history by the media,
scholars, authors, intellectual property specialists, and the general public.

The Computer Museum in Boston has recently merged with the Museum of
Science there since there was, essentially, insufficient public support for
its activities--even after its change of focus to a hands-on, interactive
"science center" model. Consequently, the historical collection of the
Museum, one of the finest in the world, was moved to the west coast where,
in the midst of silicon valley, there would be a financial, regional, and
industrial climate that would allow the collection to be seen by the public
in an environment supportive of computer history. At this time, the new
entity changed names to become "The Computer Museum History Center,"
reflecting its institutional focus of being a place where computer history
can live without financial concerns--which, as you all know, is the
ultimate rate-limiting concept behind computer preservation (as well as
time/spousal tolerance!).

As I see it, the thought that the Museum "sells," "trashes," or "scraps"
artifacts is untenable. In nearly four years as curator and manager of
historical collectons at the Center, I have no personal knowledge of any
such activities. On the contraty, in the best tradition of computer
history, artifacts tend to move in the opposite direction--i.e. FROM the
landfill/dumpster/garage TO the Center. It is thus somewhat distressting
to here claims to the contrary by individuals who, again to my knowledge,
have made not the slightest attempt to contact the History Center in order
to discuss the issue or otherwise substantiate their public, and frequently
insulting, claims. For example, why would "a list" of such non-practices
be desired? Similarly, I see little point in addressing the intemperate
remarks/epithets used by the individuals below.

As a general principle, however, the group should understand the way
Museums operate. I believe there have developed two solitudes which I am
eager to bridge: on the one hand, the private collector and, on the other
hand, the more formal institutional home for computer history. Private
collectors bring incredible passion and subject matter knowledge to their
efforts; Museums allow long-term preservation (beyond any one individual's
lifespan) and an insitutional footprint for computer history that allows
widespread propagation and display of computer history. Both communities
need each other! Museums, as part of their legal and institutional
mission, exchange and loan artifacts with other institutions of equivalent
standing (I say "equivalent" mainly to ensure artifacts are protected and
cared for). Museums also "de-accession" items, meaning they remove items
from inventory. There has not been a single such de-accessioning in my
tenure at the Center and, as any Museum person anywhere can confirm,
de-accessioning is an exceedingly rare and messy procedure--the Museum
Board must be convened and solid curatorial justification given as to why
an item should not form part of a specific collection. It is never taken
lightly and undertaken only with great circumspection.

Assuming something were to be so de-accsessioned, however, the first order
of business would be to ask other Museums if they were interested in adding
the item to their collections; if not, the item would likely be placed at
public auction (in the interest of fairness--to not privilege or otherwise
show favoritism to any one private collector). This procedure is legal,
ethical, and standard operating procedure for Museums around the world. It
may be painful to be "scooped" or otherwise see that the items we are
particularly fond of are becoming increasingly valuable, but that is the
way of the world and a sign that the general public as a whole is beginning
to realize that vaue of what we collect. Even given this framework, I
know of no disposal/auctioning of machines as described below; to assert
that the Museum would throw out an Alto seems sheer folly. Again, it is
disheartening to keep hearing the same baseless claims by individuals in
this group with respect to the Museum's collections policy. These
non-truths reverberate and feed on themselves--I really have to wonder for
whose benefit they are made given that, again, a simple e-mail to me could
have resolved the issue.

Let's move on. How can our two communities work together to preserve the
history of the machines and people who invented and used them?

1. I invite everyone on this list to visit the History Center in Mountain
View, California.
2. Get involved! The Center belongs to the community that supports it and
we have dozens of important tasks (both real and virtual) that need to be
done and that can draw on the talents of everyone. Drop me a line if
you're interested.
3. Visit our website ( and offer suggestions or
curate a virtual exhibit! Our site receives well over 2 million hits a
month--what a way to get the word out about computer history!
4. Have your own sites linked to (or even archived) by the Center as a way
of bringing attention to your specific area of interest.
5. Help the History Center by bringing interesting donation possibilities
to its attention.
6. Become a member! We have probably the largest single collection of
electronic computing artifacts in the world--yet we are swamped and could
really used the help--$$ or time--in our preservation efforts.
7. Spread the word that what we do is worthwhile. If I haven't managed to
convince you, please call me personally and I would be pleased to talk with
you, on any topic.
8. Join our regular computer history mailing list-- a great way to stay
informed about our activities.

I hope I have helped explain how the Center operates and that it is working
very hard to become worthy of the community that supports it. I fear there
has been little communication between list members and the Center,
something I am eager to remedy. When people stop talking to one another,
it's the first sign that trouble lies ahead. Please get in touch and join
us--together we can build something unique in the world that will last long
after we are gone and at which future generations will marvel! We're all
in this together. Won't you join us?

Best wishes,


Dag Spicer
Curator & Manager of Historical Collections
Editorial Board, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing
The Computer Museum History Center
Building T12-A
NASA Ames Research Center
Mountain View, CA  94035
Tel: +1 650 604 2578
Fax: +1 650 604 2594
<>  PGP: 15E31235 (E6ECDF74 349D1667 260759AD
S/V 516T
Read about The Computer Museum History Center in the 
November issue of WIRED magazine!   See "The Computer 
Hall of Fame - Modern Art."  pp. 276 - 299.
Received on Wed Nov 24 1999 - 10:53:11 GMT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Oct 10 2014 - 23:32:30 BST