Representing the Web: How has the National Museum of American History collected and curated internet-related technology?

Petrina Foti, Rochester Institute of Technology, USA

Abstract

The main objective of this study is to investigate how the curators of the National Museum of American History have collected and interpreted objects relating to the internet and Web. This current research, part of a larger study into how the curatorial staff at the history and technology museums of the Smithsonian Institution have responded to the challenge of collecting objects that contain computer-based technology, will attempt to illustrate how curatorial expertise, through contemporary collecting, can respond with agility and creativity to unknown types of technology. In doing so, the critical role that twenty-first-century curators play within the museum will be examined, and how the museum both contributes to and is influenced by modern society’s understanding of these new technologies will be explored. What is emerging is a responsive and agile model of curatorship, one that has been honed by a long tradition of technology-related collection stewardship and that is fully prepared to answer the challenges posed by computer-based technology, revealing the museum as a trusted source for context and clarity in a rapidly evolving world.

Keywords: curation; Smithsonian; computer history; curatorial history; contemporary collections; computer technology objects

1. Introduction

Among the challenges and unknowns that come with collecting without the guidance of an established historical narrative, computer-based technology offers a particularly difficult set of circumstances for both its prevalence and its complexity. The museum is faced with a new challenge in terms of both what to collect and how the museum staff should approach this change. Furthermore, computer-based technology itself offers a unique challenge as to its combined format of hardware-dependent software and software-dependent hardware. Curators are able to engage with these format challenges specifically when collecting and exhibiting with creativity and agile thinking.

In this paper, we will examine how the curators of the National Museum of American History have collected and interpreted objects relating to the Internet. This research, part of a larger study into how the curatorial staff at the history and technology museums of the Smithsonian Institution have responded to the challenge of collecting objects that contain computer-based technology, will illustrate how curatorial expertise, through contemporary collecting, can respond with agility and creativity to unknown types of technology. In doing so, the critical role that twenty-first-century curators play within the museum will be examined, and how the museum both contributes to and is influenced by modern society’s understanding of these new technologies will be explored. What is emerging is a responsive and agile model of curatorship, one that has been honed by a long tradition of technology-related collection stewardship and that is fully prepared to answer the challenges posed by computer-based technology, revealing the museum as a trusted source for context and clarity in a rapidly evolving world.

2. The challenge of computer-based technology

No matter what formal discipline they might be from, the curators who record the history of computer-based technology are faced with a longstanding problem of trying to collect and exhibit hardware-dependent software and software-dependent hardware when only one of these two is tangible. Paul Ceruzzi, in addition to being a noted scholar of computer technology history, has been, for many years, curator of aerospace electronics and computing at the National Museum of Air and Space at the Smithsonian Institution. The influence of and insight provided by that role is in direct evidence when he speculates what the rising dominance of software and cyberculture might mean in A History of Modern Computing (Ceruzzi, 2003: x):

The history of computing, as a separate subject, may itself become irrelevant. There is no shortage of evidence to suggest this. For example, when the financial press refers to “technology” stocks, it no longer means the computer industry represented by companies like IBM or even Intel, but increasingly Internet and telecommunications firms. In my work as a museum curator, I have had to grapple with issues of how to present the story of computing, using artifacts, to a public. It was hard enough when the problem was that computers were rectangular “black boxes” that revealed little of their function; now the story seems to be all about “cyberspace,” which by definition has no tangible nature to it.

David Allison (2013), who had been curator for the Computers collection at the American History Museum for over twenty years, acknowledges that:

One of the biggest challenges is how we collect software as well as hardware. Traditionally, we have focused on hardware collections—physical objects—rather than the software that goes along with them. So that latter is the greater challenge than collecting the hardware.

Alicia Cutler (2013), collection manager for the American History Museum’s Computers Collection during the 1990s and currently Digital Asset Manager for the museum, agrees:

There has been more focus on the physical aspect and not on the information contained. Everybody knows it is an issue. Across the Smithsonian, I have spoken to other curatorial staff and very few actually deal with an object that is computer-based alone. The majority still deal with these very physical objects. Nothing that combines a physical format and a digital format.

Ceruzzi, Allison, and Cutler show us that software, or objects that solely exist in a digital format, cannot easily follow the collecting precedent of material objects in the same way that three-dimensional hardware is able to. The challenges that digital-format objects present would therefore be unfamiliar to the museum.

In comparison to digital-format objects, computer hardware might seem straightforward, but one need only examine the constraints of exhibition to see that this is not necessarily true. Roger Bridgman, in a formal critique of the American History Museum’s Information Age exhibit, notes the difficulty that comes with using computers as objects and primary evidence (rather than as interpretive medium and interactive) within an exhibit:

The idea that you can use artefacts to tell a story enjoys widespread currency. But there are at least two obstacles in the way of those who, equipped with a storehouse and impassioned by the knowledge of their history, would use the artefacts to communicate the passion. The first of these obstacles is the invisibility of unfamiliar artefacts, or at least the unfamiliar parts of unfamiliar artefacts: people find it difficult to see what they have never seen before. The second is that, even if an artefact is clearly seen, to use it in a story you have to use it as a sign . . . and the meaning of any sign is socially determined. Neither of these obstacles exists for artefacts in common circulation; but these are the very artefacts that museums, as repositories of the exotic or the forgotten, tend to exclude (Bridgman, 2000: 143).

While museology might challenge Bridgman’s assessment on the effectiveness of object-driven exhibits in general, there is a certain truth when applied to exhibits dealing with computer-based technology. The visual is an important tool used in museum exhibitions, but it is not one that easily lends itself to the internal process of computer technology. Ceruzzi notes that “it is difficult because it is hard to display [computers] and because they do not look that interesting to a visitor. Visitors who own these devices at home do not understand what the historical context is” (Ceruzzi, 2013). While Ceruzzi’s words partially echo Bridgman’s concerns, Ceruzzi reminds us that computer technology is highly familiar to museum visitors, though perhaps not within the context that the museum is attempting to present. This is further complicated by the computer technology in question providing no visual clues to assist the museum visitors in better understanding this context.

What makes computer machines so difficult to present in this manner is that computer-based technology, due to its size and design, is not immediately intuitive, even with an accompanying explanation. Curator of Electricity Harold Wallace (2013) notes that, when it comes to exhibiting computer-based technology:

In some respects, [it is not difficult] because you do have the physical objects, whether it is a PC, laptop, external hard drive, or peripheral. So you do have objects there that you can put in a showcase that people can look at and relate to, especially if it is something that they remember from when they were a kid. In another way, it is difficult because as opposed to a steam engine where you can see how the piston moves and how the connecting rods hook up. You could see physically how these things would work. With the computers, you open them up and show a little microchip. You cannot see the electrons running around and the ones and zeroes flopping back and forth. So how easy is it for a visitor to intuitively begin to understand how the computer works and what is going on in there? You have to, ironically, resort to analogy to explain this digital technology. So in some ways it is no more difficult than any other technology and in some ways it is. And that is not even mentioning software.

What Wallace shows us is that computer technology hardware itself is complex and therefore difficult to parse. Joyce Bedi (2013), historian for the American History Museum’s Lemelson Center of Invention, concurs:

I think exhibiting [computer-based technology] is a challenge because it is not easy to see what it is and what it can do. Mechanical machines where you can see the gears and the belts or at least follow it through a diagram, but showing someone a circuit diagram of what is inside or what is on a motherboard is not going to help any more than just showing them the box.

Wallace and Bedi both offer explanations as to why the complexity of computers cannot be easily visualized, beyond their familiar plastic casings. Stevan Fisher (2013), whose job as senior exhibit designer for the American History Museum allows for deeper insights into what makes a successful exhibit, notes that:

There are difficulties in computer technology in trying to present it to the public when it is not plugged in or working. Software displays tend to not be interactive for that reason or, if they are, are very limited in timeframe. . . How do you show what it actually does? On the device itself, it is often not possible. As a device that is part of an exhibition [interpretation], then it is not actually the technology on display; it is just another means of getting information to the visitor.

Ceruzzi (2003: x) was quoted above as acknowledging: “It was hard enough when the problem was that computers were rectangular ‘black boxes’ that revealed little of their function.” Ceruzzi’s use of the term “black box” was not poetic or accidental. It is familiar terminology for a history of technology practitioner used to describe the very problem that Bedi and Wallace have identified. Helena Wright (2013), curator of Graphic Arts at the American History Museum, recalled:

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a lot of talk, within the Society for the History of Technology about the so-called “black box conundrum” of comprehending—studying—new technologies. Within that organization, museum people were especially struggling with what to collect and how to exhibit these new technologies because they were so obscured by the “black box.” There was nothing to see. There were no moving parts. It was not something that could easily be explained.

Wright shows us both the long association between the history of technology and museum curators and how this trait of computer technology might provide a challenge for the museum. David Allison (2013) explains:

There are a number of challenges [to exhibiting computer technology]. One of course is having something the public understands. Computer technology tends to be the quintessential “black box”—that is, what it looks like does not necessarily represent what it is. On an automobile, you can look at it, see the wheels, see the steering wheel, and get a sense of what it does. A computer, which is a general purpose machine rather than a special purpose machine, is something very difficult to understand the significance just by looking at the object itself—particularly older computers where people are long distant from how they operated in society. So making the technology interesting, making it relevant, I think that is very challenging.

Again we see a Smithsonian curator use the term “black box” as a way to explain the visual challenge that computer technology presents. Bernard Finn (2013), curator emeritus for the American History Museum’s Electricity collection, concurs with both Wright and Allison:

I think we all have a problem with recent technology, period. It is the old ‘black box’ argument. You cannot understand easily what is going on inside the device. It is more difficult to exhibit than nineteenth-century technologies simply because what is happening is not visible. You cannot grab a hold of it and explain it as easily.

It should not be surprising that Wallace, Bedi, Ceruzzi, Wright, Allison, and Finn should use the same terms and concepts when discussing the exhibition of computer-based technology. As curators long associated with the history of technology, they would be driven to explain how technology works to a general audience.

3. Agile museum curation

Because computer technology has been so adopted into contemporary life, museums are motivated to collect and exhibit these technologies to better reflect a true picture of their world. Helena Wright (2013) observes that the challenge of collecting computer-based technology was not the challenge it was twenty years ago, but instead has increasingly “become more part of the mainstream of everything in life, so therefore it has to be part of what museums collect.” Wright’s words serve as evidence as to why it is so important for museums to engage with collecting computer-based technology, despite the innate difficulties. And as they do so, they also establish a precedent for collecting a type of object that was previously unknown. Robert Leopold (2013), deputy director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and former director of the National Anthropological Archives, notes: “I believe that it is not only easy to collect computer-based technology, I think [museums] do it all the time. I think that there is no way to stop museums from collecting.” Leopold further explains that:

Computer technology is not new. We are finding it new to have to deal with some of the repercussions of it in practices like archiving that developed a century and a half ago. . . They are unfamiliar challenges, is what they are. Again, the opportunity is that they give us the chance to rethink business as usual and to think “Wow, what would be unusual? What can we do that is greater, that is better, that is more useful than things we have done in the past?”

Leopold reframes the difficulties that computer-based technology often presents into new opportunities for the museum to develop and expand beyond its existing parameters. Wright and Leopold’s observations serve as illustrations of how museum practice has begun to transform the unknowns of computer-based technology into a tradition with its own rich evidence.

Curators who engage with computer-based technology in their practice exhibit a series of agile traits that have facilitated this transformation and this agile ability to accommodate the unknown and assimilate the new. In the exhibit Time and Navigation, curators Carlene Stephens and Paul Ceruzzi found creative ways to present their non-traditional-appearing computer-based technology, such as the driver-less vehicle, commonly referred to as “Stanley” (Accession Record 2008.0185) and an iPhone GPS chip. It is therefore not surprising that Stephens (2013) does not find recording the history of computer-based technology difficult:

I think that there are any number of imaginative ways to collect computer technologies—users, makers, inventors—and it is the same kind of imaginative work that pertains to just about any object or subject. If people have imagination and the will to collect, it can be done.

Stephens’ words remind us that curators who engage with computer-based technology, rather than being paralyzed by a lack of precedent, display the ability to meet the challenge of the unknown creatively. We might therefore classified this ability as “agile” and understand it to be a trait associated with this skill as characteristics of curatorial expertise. Smithsonian curators respond in numerous creative ways to collect computer technology.

While the National Museum of American History has begun to engage with collecting digital-formal object, such as born-digital photography, one of the most commonly collecting behaviors at the museum follows a representational model, allowing the hardware to represent the software. For example, in the National Museum of American History’s Computers Collection, there is a pager that was used during the events of September 11, 2001, by a lawyer who worked at the World Trade Center. It was with this pager that he managed to locate every person who worked in his office and ensure that they were safe (Accession Record 2002.0355). While a paper-based printout of the actual texts was preserved, the pager and how it was used is the focus of this principally social history story. The instrument of communication is the representative of the whole story.

Different solutions from this representational model might, for example, include ensuring that the objects were fully operational, both on exhibit and in the storage area. While this might be a viable and engaging path for many museums, this was not deemed practical or sustainable by the curatorial staff at the National Museum of American History; the number of museum visitors in one day can range in the thousands. To cater for such large numbers, exhibits must at least be partially dependent on visual display. A further complication is keeping such exhibitions relevant in an ever-evolving world. Curator for the Electricity Collection Harold Wallace (2013) recalled that:

When Information Age opened in 1990, it was one of the very few places the ordinary person could sit down and get onto the Internet using the last couple of workstations in the Information Age. It got to the point by the time the exhibit closed in 2006, where that was just passé: “Yeah, of course you can get onto the internet. So?” It had lost its technical panache, you know?

This loss of “technical panache” is mainly due to computer technology’s rapid development cycle means that new technology becomes more readily available to the public in a shorter period of time. Museum visitors’ own experiences soon catch up and, even in some cases, bypass the technology that is being displayed.

4. The representational model of curation

The museum therefore must stay abreast and responsive in our ever-evolving world. For example, in the past twenty years, the music and entertainment fields have undergone a massive transformation with the development of DVDs and streaming services such as Netflix, which has led to, as Jentsch (2013) terms it, a “golden age of adult drama, long form stories that involve very mature themes.” Thanks to advances in technology, it is now possible for fans to watch any episode they wish of their favorite programs. Unlike in years past, modern American television serials are currently being developed with the expectation that all but the most casual of viewers will watch the series in its entirety. Jentsch notes that:

The actual props and content of a series would not only say what this series represents, but also that the series exists because of these technological changes. So they can be used to tell that story as well. . . You could now watch Game of Thrones, or even The Sopranos, all at once. This changes the types of stories you can tell because you know that your audiences could follow it based on their maturity level but also on their ability to watch it whenever they want.

We can now see from Jentsch’s words that the familiar Entertainment Collection practice of collecting props and costumes is actually functioning on a more complex level, serving as a representation of concept: the rise of long-form narrative storytelling in early twenty-first-century American television. By representing a larger story in American popular culture, this, in turn, serves as a method to ensure that these acquisitions stay relevant even after the interest in their represented productions has faded. This illustrates a thoughtful and agile curatorial response to emerging social and technological patterns and structures.

We can see this same agility at play in the early plans of Jentsch and his colleagues to record the rise of Netflix, a company that does not have specifically associated representational hardware or software. In must be noted that, to date, these remain merely plans that may or may not come to fruition in the near future depending on a numerous set of outside circumstances. However, it is important to recognize that tracing these early thoughts (which are rarely recorded) can be used to illuminate the curatorial process. As detailed on the company’s own website (https://pr.netflix.com/WebClient/loginPageSalesNetWorksAction.do?contentGroupId=10477), Netflix began in 1999 as a subscription service that offered DVD rentals by mail and in 2007 introduced streaming services, which would allow subscribers to watch movies and television shows on their computers via the internet. In recent years, Netflix began to offer original content exclusively as part of their streaming packages. Jentsch (2013) notes:

They furthered [streaming television shows] and now they are actually a producer of content. That shows the power of and plasticity of the technology in that they went from taking a hard product and sending it through the mail where you could watch a movie, to actually creating content and presenting it in a new way. Instead of just being a delivery system, they are actually a producer of entertainment. So they are almost like a network on themselves, which changes the whole paradigm of who owns the production of content.

Here we can see objects that do not contain computer technology being collected to represent a social change prompted by computer-based technology. This reflexive response is indicative perhaps of how expert curation navigates through a rigid set of circumstances. In this instance of collecting, the computer technology—while essential to the rise of streaming services and therefore partly responsible for the shift towards long-form storytelling—is not central to the representational needs of the museum when it seeks to collect this phenomena, and therefore the museum need not directly address the “black box.”

What is interesting about this responsive representation of computer-based technology is that it can be applied to already existing museum holdings, such as the laptop used as a prop during the television show Sex and the City (Accession Record 2004.0163). The program, which ran from 1998 until 2004 and was then followed by feature films in 2008 and 2010, examined the lives of four women living in New York City. As the series celebrated high fashion and explored issues pertaining to romantic and sexual relationships, it might seem rather surprising that the museum’s sole representation takes the form of computer technology. It is interesting to note that the Web label (http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1289854) for the laptop reflects this possible disconnect:

Manhattan newspaper columnist Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker used this laptop to record her observations on modern relationships in the risqué comedy series Sex and the City (HBO, 1998-2004). Frank, witty, and often outrageous, the Emmy Award-winning cable show won millions of loyal fans with its depiction of four women friends and their romantic urban escapades. It also established cable TV as a competitive producer of original programming. Sex and the City set fashion trends, from Manolo Blahnik shoes to cosmopolitan cocktails, and provoked cultural debates about sex, relationships, and gender roles (Accession Record 2004.0163).

Not reflected in the Web label is the larger curatorial motivation for the laptop’s selection. Since the main character and narrator Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, was a columnist for a fictional newspaper who worked from home rather than in a central office building, the laptop, accessioned in 2004, was collected in part to represent the social movement of the home office. However, the laptop can also be interpreted in terms of its use within the show and how that might be connected to current internet-based social communication. Jentsch (2013) notes:

It is not just using it as a plot device. It is also a way to explain her character as being this modern woman that people can relate to, especially in the use of her technology. . . I would say that the character of Carrie Bradshaw is someone who represents that figure for a lot of people. Instead of being a journalist or writing letters to her friends, or some other plot device they might have used in the past, she is writing a blog, for a general audience, all about herself.

By virtue of their multifunctionality, computers and computer-based technology pose difficulties for museums when attempting to isolate an individual capability of the technology. We recall from Chapter 3 the display of the iPhone in the Time and Navigation exhibit. In that example, the curatorial response was to open the iPhone to reveal the GPS chip in question. With the Sex and the City laptop, we see a different yet equally agile solution.

While computers are multipurpose machines, this particular computer, by virtue of being a prop, is associated with a particular computer application: internet communication. Therefore it can represent that application. Jentsch (2013) explains:

The main thing for me is how much is the same or different in terms of content produced on these devices. It goes back to the telegraphs. How did people interact and what kind of messages did they have? The internet when it came out, [it was] like ‘this is the information superhighway, and we can learn anything.’ Well, what did people want to do? Talk about themselves. That is the human element. They want to see themselves in technology. They want to use it for their own life and their own psychological reasons.

We see here how Jentsch has taken an existing museum object that is still quite contemporary and reinterpreted it in the context of the current understanding of technology. Helena Wright (2013) of the Graphic Arts Collection notes the same process of assessment and reassessment when working with her own collection that Jentsch exemplified:

I am continually trying to make the collection relevant and part of that is understanding what is here and unpacking what is here, figuring out why it was collected, when it was collected, and then what do we want to add to that from our perspective that will build on what they have done.

Wright explains in general the curatorial thought process that Jentsch illustrated in the specific. We can therefore understand this ability to respond and reframe existing knowledge to be a central trait of responsive curation and one that provides great assistance to curators engaging existing knowledge.

This tradition of responding to developments in society by reframing existing collections also serves as a reminder that the collections of the Smithsonian, even those that were primarily composed through contemporary collecting, are long established when even the youngest collections can measure their history in decades. Many, such as the American History Museum’s Physical Science Collections (from which the Electricity Collection originated), Graphic Arts Collection, and Photographic History Collection, were founded during the latter half of the nineteenth century, before their current parent museum, which opened in 1964, was even planned or proposed. Therefore, we understand this process of revaluation to be a curatorial technique honed over a long period of time, and one that would then naturally be applied to computer-based technology as a pattern of curation that is familiar and well tested. We might therefore state that agile, responsive curatorial expertise offers a precedent of curatorial practice for the challenges of the unprecedented.

5. Conclusion

As we have seen, the curatorial staff of the Smithsonian Institution are responsive in how they convey and record knowledge of computer-based technology. They are creative in their approach and prepared to work in new ways to better achieve their objective, even when employing the well-tested representational model of collecting and exhibiting. This type of curatorial behaviour can be dramatic and overt, but often is quiet and subtle in expression. Yet, in this observation of agile expertise around computer-based technology, we also notice, perhaps, implications for museum practice more widely. These were curators over multiple generations at one institution who were confronted with a series of objects without precedent. These were museum professionals making judgements on collecting object types for the first time, but then working within departmental structures and processes of collections management not (on the surface at least) suited to the anomalies presented to them. However, what we see in these powerful examples is the Smithsonian Institution being able, as it were, to flex its expertise and show a willingness to readdress its processes in order to collect and incorporate the “black box” into its holdings. This says much about the Smithsonian Institution itself, and how it has been able to find precedents for being agile and responsive by looking back on previous examples from a span of decades of collecting the unprecedented. These examples may also speak to a more embedded characteristic of museum curation more generally. Computers at the Smithsonian constitute, of course, a very specific case of a localized culture of museum practice. Yet, this expert curatorial response might also serve as an illustration of the curatorship we might encounter with other types of contemporary objects in other types of institutions. What we have detected here, in short, may be a responsiveness and agility of modern museum expertise, rather than just exclusively a character of Smithsonian professional life.

Acknowledgements

I am deeply grateful for the access, support, and encouragement I received at the Smithsonian Institution. Everyone I spoke with was more than generous with their time and expertise. In particular, I would like to thank David Allison, Joyce Bedi, Paul Ceruzzi, Alicia Cutler, Barney Finn, Stevan Fisher, Eric Jentsch, Stacey Kluck, Robert Leopold, Carlene Stephens, Hal Wallace, and Helena Wright. I would also like to thank Dr. Ross Parry for his guidance and support over the course of this project.

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Cite as:
. "Representing the Web: How has the National Museum of American History collected and curated internet-related technology?." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published February 1, 2016. Consulted .
https://mw2016.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/representing-the-web-how-has-the-national-museum-of-american-history-collected-and-curated-internet-related-technology/