“Museums, Computer History and Institutional Challenges” by Burbano, Rosen, Staiti and Weber

  • ©Andrés Burbano, Margit Rosen, Alana Staiti, and Marc Weber




    Museums, Computer History and Institutional Challenges




    This panel is dedicated to exploring the challenges that face the exceptional cultural institutions and museums that collect the hard- ware and software of computer history and computer art history. The panel has three presentations by active practitioners working at some of the most prestigious institutions in the field worldwide:

    1.1 “The Material Culture of Human-Computer Interaction: Highlights at the National Museum of American History” by Alana Staiti

    This presentation will provide an overview of objects in the collec- tions of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History re- lated to real-time graphics and human-computer interaction. From one-of-a-kind systems of the early years of digital computing to prototypes of the first home entertainment systems to innovative adaptive technologies for people with disabilities, the Museum’s collections reveal a range of objects that tell a rich and layered history of technological innovations in human-computer interac- tion as well as the collecting agendas of museum curators past and present. We will conclude with a brief discussion of the future of collecting the history of computer graphics and interactivity at the Museum, including the challenges that lie ahead.

    1.2 “Our Digital Fragility. The Preservation of Computer-Based Artworks” by Margit Rosen

    The collection of the ZKM comprises one of the largest holdings of computer-based artworks. These complex digital objects reveal a dilemma of two centuries whose key technologies are electronics and the digital: The material culture of the 20th and 21st centuries is exceedingly fragile. Hardware disintegrates within a short period of time, whether it is used or not. Companies that manufactured certain devices or elements disappear. And if the artwork is con- nected to the Internet, it becomes a victim of rapidly changing protocols and standards. The general problem of preserving our digital culture becomes particularly acute from the perspective of a museum. The contradiction between a technical industry de- signed for change and works of art intended for eternity cannot be resolved. The ZKM is one of the few institutions worldwide that has been collecting computer-based works since the 1990s and has therefore had to develop preservation strategies. The lecture will address the question of how we can meet the challenges of preservation of complex digital objects and whether in 100 years we will have a chance to walk through museums and experience alongside paintings, graphics, and sculptures also computer-based artworks – works of art produced in the media that defined the everyday life of their time.

    1.3 “Preserving the Bumpy History of Multimedia and its Roots in Hypermedia Dreams” by Marc Weber

    This presentation uses the up and down history of multimedia and hypermedia as a lens into the collection and exhibits at the Computer History Museum, as well as to examine broader issues of preservation and access. If they think of it at all, people mostly imagine the history of multimedia as a smooth progression upward, from crude line-printed ASCII art to today’s eye-wateringly crisp 3D games and streaming video. All in time to a thumping baseline from wireless subwoofers. Few think of hypertext and hypermedia – the core navigation model for the online world – as integral to that history. That’s partly because the Web tore down most of the multimedia advances of the 1980s, its slow connection speeds and poor protocols pushing back the quality of sound, graphics , and video a decade or more. Only with broadband and more effiicient file formats (Flash, MP3, etc.) did Web media begin to claw itself back the level of standalone PCs in the late 1980s. Yet this was far from the first time that advances in communication had been at odds with ways of representing media. From its invention through the printing press, the telegraph, and the early computer, writing was easier to copy than images. From its start in the early 20th century, hypertext pioneers were as concerned with navigating different media as with text. This led to some of the klugey solutions we cover at the Computer History Museum, like computer controlled microfilm readers (PLATO) and videodisc players (Aspen Movie Map).

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