Upgrading the Computer History Museum

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., is a geek's paradise. Its warehouse-style exhibit room is laden with old Macs, supercomputers, and reel-to-reel storage tapes.

It houses relics like a five-ton mechanical calculator from the 19th century and curios such as the "kitchen computer," a hulking red-and-white recipe-storing machine with a built-in cutting board that was sold by Neiman Marcus in the '60s. The museum has witnessed 15 wedding receptions of couples who chose to celebrate amid the mainframes and minicomputers.

Yet much of the museum, which houses one of the world's largest collections of tech arcana, remains barely accessible to a broader audience, and draws just 80,000 visitors a year. (Just down the freeway the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose drew nearly 630,000 visitors last year.)

Version 2.0

So the Computer History Museum is taking early steps in an ambitious effort to catapult its collection into the 21st century.

On July 1, visitors got their first glimpse at what the museum's chief executive, John Hollar, calls "Version 2.0 of the Computer History Museum." A new exhibit, "The Silicon Engine," is a 50th-anniversary history of the invention of the silicon chip that ushered in the modern era of computing (see "Retelling Computer History"). The display will feature a mini-theater with a narrated movie that tells the story of the people and companies that built the chip industry. Audio listening stations let attendees delve into deeper information about topics, and artifacts including electronics and engineering notes lay clearly labeled beneath glass display cases.

The more professional approach to showing some of the museum's 100,000 artifacts and hundreds of hours of video footage—most of which are currently socked away in storage—is a preview of techniques Hollar and his curatorial staff will use in an overhaul of the entire museum scheduled to open in October 2010. The renovation will double the museum's exhibit space to 25,000 square feet and aim to help visitors construct a story line around the collection, says Hollar.

It's a quantum leap for a museum that currently provides scant information alongside the collected computers and provides only glimpses of the people behind the cavalcade of musty machines. "Who they are, how they did it, what they had to overcome to do it—that has to be translated for the general public," says Harvard Business School historian Richard S. Tedlow, who became the museum's first "resident scholar" in January. "That's the gulf the industry has to bridge if it's to tell its story in a way that's understandable to the general public."

Telling the Tales

Hulking, careworn mainframes and supercomputers sit behind railings in a cavernous room that's just a step more polished than a storage area. Bunches of old PCs stand stacked on industrial metal shelving with only small labels identifying them. There's a dearth of the kinds of hands-on, interactive displays that are de rigueur in museums today.

Making the computer industry's history more accessible to the public could help jog interest in computing at a time when the U.S. is perceived to be falling behind in engineering. "There's a diminished interest in the student population in science and technology," says Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist, who has donated money to the museum. "If you lose track of where things come from, you're doomed to make the same mistakes again."

The museum, one of only a few of its kind in the U.S., boasts an impressive collection, including an original IBM (IBM) PC, a wood-encased Apple (AAPL) computer prototype signed by co-founder Steve Wozniak, Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) first pocket calculator, and one of Google's (GOOG) earliest servers. "The Computer History Museum has possibly one of the most interesting collections of equipment, and some of it's still running," Cerf says. But most visitors may be stumped without a volunteer guide. "If you don't have access to a docent, you may not get a lot wandering around," he says.

Former Digital Equipment executive Gordon Bell, now a researcher at Microsoft (MSFT), started the museum in 1979 with his wife, and the collection completed a move from Boston to Silicon Valley in 2000. The museum operates on a budget of about $5 million a year, drawn in part from a $38 million endowment that includes a $15 million gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Other income comes from events and the $85 million in donations the museum has raised in the past 10 years. Admission is free.

Interviews with Tech Pioneers

But the museum's board, which includes Bell and other computer-industry luminaries like former Palm (PALM) CEO Donna Dubinsky, has pushed management to do more with its artifacts, which include more than 300 "oral history" interview videos of tech pioneers including Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds, and Wozniak, says Kirsten Tashev, the museum's vice-president for collections and exhibitions. The museum has been negotiating with friends of Steve Jobs to get the Apple CEO to tell his company's story on film. So far, it's had no success, Tashev says.

Hollar, who took over as CEO a year ago after launching educational Web sites at PBS and Pearson (PSO) over the past 15 years, says he wants to make the tech industry's pioneers more relevant to visitors' lives. Among America's roughly 12,000 history museums, "we're one of the few where the people who made the history are around to tell it," he says. Hollar hopes to double attendance to more than 150,000 within a few months of next year's reopening.

Yet the Computer History Museum's struggles to effectively narrate 60 years of technology innovation reflect the opaque nature of the subject matter. Individual companies including Intel (INTC), IBM, and HP have preserved swaths of their history. But overall, the technology field hasn't told its story as well as others like auto making, manufacturing, and aerospace, which boast archives like the popular Deutsches Museum in Munich; the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.; and DuPont's (DD) Hagley Museum & Library in Wilmington, Del.

"There's work to be done" presenting the computer industry's history to the public, says Harvard professor Tedlow. "It's important to do that work now, because many of the pioneers are still with us, and in 10 years many of those folks aren't going to be."

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