When Digital Becomes the Object: Developing Computing Histories in Museums

Ross Parry, University of Leicester, UK, Petrina Foti, Loughborough University, United Kingdom, Simone Natale, University of Turin, Italy

Abstract

Digital technology is not just the means by which museums today communicate with their audiences, manage their collections, and coordinate their professional practice - it is also a subject they collect, and a story they tell. Culturally and curatorially, the history of computer-based technology is still something that is relatively new to the museum (Weber, 2016; Sumner, 2016). Today, as curatorship begins to evidence and narrate the story of modern computing and the digital, we see the museum confronting not just a living history (Parry, 2005), but an emergent history. And this offers us a rare insight - an insight not only into how different cultures are starting to frame the story of modern computing, but the role museums play in the formation of this collective imaginary of ‘the computer’ in society (Foti, 2018; Natale, 2016). Sharing the initial findings of a major international research project ("Circuits of Practice"), this paper looks at the role museums play in the creation of modern digital history. Its contributors offer insights from their partner organisations: Bletchley Park (UK); The Centre for Computing History (Cambridge, UK); The Computing History Museum (California, USA); The Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (Milan, Italy); The National Museum of Computing (UK); The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Tokyo, Japan); The National Science and Media Museum (Bradford, UK); The Science Museum (London, UK), and The Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK). The paper reflects on what happens when the traditional narratology and historiography around ‘technology’, meets the narratives and history-making traditions of the museum. It offers a study of when media studies, history and museology meet – and challenges us to think critically about what "digital" is, not as a delivery tool, but as a cultural object in the museum.

Keywords: narrative, biography, media, data, time, exhibition

Introduction

By some definitions, computing history may claim to have a past that stretches back hundreds if not thousands of years, to origin technologies being used to support early computation (Ceruzzi, 2003). And yet, culturally and curatorially, the history of (specifically) computer-based technology is still something that is relatively new to the museum (Weber, 2016; Sumner, 2016). Today, as curatorship begins to evidence and narrate the story of modern computing and digital technology, we see the museum confronting not just a living history (Parry, 2005), but an emergent history. And this offers us a rare insight – an insight not only into how different cultures are starting to frame the story of modern computing, but the role museums play in the formation of this collective imaginary of ‘the computer’ in society (Foti, 2018; Natale, 2016).

Drawing from preliminary findings of an AHRC-funded research project (“Circuits of Practice: Narrating modern computing in museum environments”), which includes the participation of researchers and practitioners from two HE institutions in the UK and ten international partners in the museum and the private sector, this paper reflects on what happens when the traditional narratology and historiography around ‘technology’ (hero inventors, deterministic, a narrative of progress and modernity) meets the narratives and history-making of the museum (non-linear, visitor–built narratives, emblematic displays, storytellers). It offers a study of when media studies, narratology, history and museology meet – and challenges us to think critically about what ‘digital’ is, not as a delivery tool, but as a cultural object in the museum.

As new museums dedicated to histories of computing and digital media emerge, and as many existing institutions integrate new histories of computing within their provision (Blyth, 2013; Turner and Larson, 2015), the paper investigates what is a process in the making. The paper’s intention is to stimulate new research and attention on this topic – as existing exhibitions are revised, new exhibitions are planned, and a new practice of curatorship (on computing history as live heritage) forms around us. Within museum studies, a wide literature exists addressing digitisation processes (Din and Hecht, 2007), interrogating the impact of digital technologies in exhibitions (Marty and Jones, 2008), or investigating the technical conditions through which digital objects are preserved and exhibited (Tallon and Walker, 2008), as well as the museum’s use of communication technology within wider contexts and landscapes of media use (Drotner et al, 2019). Yet, relatively less attention has been given to how museums engage in constructing historical narratives about digital media. A new line of research, however, is now emerging that addresses this question, with university-based scholars such as James Sumner (2016) and museum-based scholars such as Marc Weber (2016) and Tilly Blyth (2013) exploring the creation of historical narratives within museum environments. This paper, and the Circuits of Practice project more broadly, aims to contribute to this emerging body of research. Sharing the initial findings of this research, this discussion looks at the role museums play in the creation of modern digital history. Its contributors offer insights from their partner organisations: Bletchley Park (Milton Keynes, UK); the Centre for Computing History (Cambridge, UK); the Computer History Museum (Mountain View, California, USA); the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (Milan, Italy); the National Museum of Computing (Milton Keynes, UK); the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation “Miraikan” (Tokyo, Japan); the National Science and Media Museum (Bradford, UK); the Science Museum (London, UK), and the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK).

Research Context: The ‘Circuits of Practice’ Project

As computing technologies have become ubiquitous in the everyday experience of billions of people around the world, histories of computing have become an important part of our historical heritage. Museums have the potential to play a key role in this context, facilitating the emergence of more diverse and deeper understandings of how computing contributed to shape the past, the present and the future of our societies. This is a particularly urgent task if one considers that, as research has shown (Mansell, 2012), narratives about technologies shape public debates that in turn inform the governance of these technologies. Yet, the difficulty of turning digital objects into exhibits and the complex route of technological and social change which makes constructing a distinctive and clear narrative about computing particularly arduous (Foti, 2018), makes this an extremely difficult challenge that requires concerted efforts of a broad community of researchers from different fields and contexts of practice.

In response to this challenge, the Circuits of Practice project leverages a plurality of approaches, theories and methods to conduct interdisciplinary practice-led research at the intersection the fields of museum studies and media studies. Taking up the metaphor of the electronic circuit, where electrical connections between diverse components enable complex operations to be performed, the project aims at establishing a ‘circuit’ of practice-based, situated reflections through which museum-based and university-based researchers collaborate to address the following overarching question: how do museums narrate modern computing?

Circuits of Practice activates the protocols of design thinking to lead and organize research activities. This method mobilizes the human-centred and problem-solving approach employed in design to contribute a more fundamental thinking through of the visitor-centred visions, values, missions and making of museums (MacLeod et al., 2015). In a series of online research workshops, action research methods were used to carry out a series of practical interventions within the museum partners. Action research brings together practical action and theoretical reflection in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern (Reason and Bradbury, 2001). Set within the overall design thinking structure, the action research will allow each circuit to move from practical problems and issues faced by each of the museum partners to work creatively and responsively with mixed methods.

The narrative of this paper consciously and overtly reflects the overall organization of the ‘Circuits of Practice’ project and its three research teams (or ‘Circuits’): the ‘Objects Circuit’, which asks how museums can narrate the development of computers through time; the ‘Data Circuit’ and its questioning of how museums might narrate the role of data in computing histories; and the ‘Time Circuit’, asking how museums can narrate the development of computers through time.

The Living Meanings of Computing History Objects

While the collecting and exhibiting of material objects is one of the museum’s key activities and mandates, curatorial practices nonetheless constantly challenge existing definitions of objects and materiality. At different points across the last two centuries, museums have asked questions on which kinds of objects should be preserved, but also what counts as ‘object’ and where the boundaries between tangible and intangible may lie. At different points in history, the inclusion of new areas of interest in the museum’s remit and the efforts needed to acquire and conserve objects in the collection have stimulated changes and reflections that not only affected cultural heritage practices, but posed entirely new kinds of questions. These are questions that reverberate in discussions and reflections about the status of objects in human societies and cultures (Domínguez Rubio, 2016).

The inclusion of objects related to the history of computing and digital objects, therefore, provides a double opportunity to researchers and practitioners. On the one hand, it can lead to new insights with the potential to interrogate and self-reflectively reshape existing practices and conventions within a museum environment (Foti, 2018). On the other hand, thanks to museums’ relational, multi-faceted and interdisciplinary character, the inclusion of these objects in museums’ collections may produce insights and approaches that help tackle broader questions about the status, meanings and implications of digital objects – questions that are still to be fully answered, and are all the more urgent to address in contemporary cultures (Hui, 2016).

A research group within the Circuits of Practice project, named the Objects Circuit, conducted seven dedicated workshops that mobilized action research methods and design thinking methodologies to address how museums might curate hardware and software artefacts to narrate histories of modern computing. Three museum partners were involved in the workshops: The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley, UK, the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, Italy, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. Drawing from theoretical and methodological resources in fields including anthropology, media studies, and museum studies, we selected specific objects as case studies for each institution, giving attention to the relationship between, on the one side, the objects’ integration within the museums’ collections and exhibitions and the diverse institutional contexts and curatorial work, and on the other side, the wider trajectories of these digital objects in time, both outside and within the museums.

Our approach was shaped by the consideration that objects, including digital objects, cannot be examined from a univocal and fixed perspective, but should be understood through a combination of complementary points of view, encompassing their technical and material creation and development (Domínguez Rubio, 2016), their different social uses and appropriations (Appadurai, 1986; Gell, 1998), and the narratives or “biographies” that circulate about them (Natale, 2019). An initial review of literature, conducted in the preliminary research phase and tested in the first workshop which saw the participation of all partners, led to the identification of an analytical framework distinguishing three interrelated dimensions through which the objects under analysis could be studied: their material or technical lives, their social lives, and their narrative lives. The concept of “lives” was employed, mainly in a metaphorical fashion, to account for the changing meanings and positions that objects assume across time and to the close interrelationship between the trajectory of objects and the lives of people – which for digital objects include technologists, users, as well as curators and museum professionals – who interact and project sense onto them.

In the subsequent six workshops, two for each partner institution, all these dimensions were found relevant to museum practice. The material and technical dimensions emerged in discussions about the technical challenges of preserving digital objects, both hardware and software, and about the different spaces in which objects were stored, exhibited and preserved – spaces that affect their very meaning and status. The social dimension entailed discussing how objects change uses and definitions across time and how they become a key component of people’s lives, not only before but also after they are acquired by museums, as they enter a circuit (to use the term that gave the project’s name) of social relationships comprising museum staff and volunteers, visitors, as well as the other objects of the collections and the institutional structures that underpin such circuit (Parry, 2010). Finally, the narrative dimension was deemed crucial since the act of curating an object for exhibition in a museum also entails the development of specific messages and narratives through which such object can be presented to visitors and through which it can contribute to broader narratives in the exhibition space (Natale, 2016).

The implication of this overarching approach is that curatorial practices can be usefully located, examined and carried out at the intersection between the material and the discursive “lives” of things. The museum-based practices, in this regard, emerge not so much as a process that fixates meanings, establishing specific narratives and messages about what each object meant within wider histories of computing, technology and design. More clearly, the preservation and exhibition work of museums emerges as a range of relational social practices that are in a relationship of continuity with the longer material, social and narrative histories of these objects. The work of curators, volunteers, and other museum professionals, in this sense, provided an entry point to understand the relational, flexible character of digital objects. Much as digital objects throughout their social “lives” become repositories of multiple social uses, meanings, and exchanges (as they were created, used, circulated, and eventually discarded outside the museum), so these objects also establish a relational and iterative social “circuit of meaning” within the museum environment.

Consequently, the practice-based research conducted with our partners provides not just insight into museum practice but also, more broadly, an entry point into the social and cultural nature of digital objects. The museum emerges, from this perspective, as a context in which meanings, uses, and definitions of these objects are self-reflectively renegotiated, and a laboratory through which insights into the relational circumstances that constitute the very nature of digital objects can become manifest and further understood.

The Data Forms of Computing History Collections

The ‘Data Circuit’ (involving museum practitioners from the Science Museum in London, Bletchley Park, and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California) began with the research question: How can museums narrate the role of information and data in computing histories? This premise looks to the heart of the challenge that software poses for the museum. As Marc Weber, curator at the Computer History Museum, notes:

Today, we aren’t just losing information shared between people. Most of the great machines that have powered our age of instant online communication over the past fifty years are fading like snow in spring rain. We call those machines ‘software.’ In past ages, machines either survived or were lost. Today many of their physical husks, the hardware, gets preserved. But functionally that’s like a watch museum full of empty watch cases with the works gone (Weber 57).

To examine how museums narrate data, therefore, is to confront how museums are responding to digital fragility (Domínguez Rubio & Wharton, 2020). This speaks to current research priorities at both the Science Museum and the Computer History Museum. Yet, as exemplified with the practice of our partners at Bletchley Park, data can (and very often does) appear as analog. It was, consequently, important that this Circuit be clear on how it defined ‘data’ in the context of the museum sector. And so, the first of a series of five workshops was dedicated to investigating this very question. Extended discussions with participants from all three museums provided a window into museum practice at three different institutions. Key to this discussion was the observation that whilst data may be ‘information’ by definition, the expression of that information (its form, its function, its value) is typically subject to the circumstances in which it is being presented. In response to this key observation on the fundamental importance of context, this Circuit began to construct its own conceptual framework to better understand and articulate the contextual expression of data. In order to prioritize the practicalities of museum work within the project’s critical analysis (McCarthy, 2015), a ‘synthesis matrix’ was developed informed in tandem by literature review and questions formulated around data by the partner museums following reflections on their own practice. Ultimately, it was proposed that data (at least as it relates to museum practice) can usefully be understood through several key forms of expression: as bits (as required by discipline); as evidence (in terms of objective analysis); as lens (due to contextualization); as museum object (in terms of historical preservation); as tool (as required by professional practice); and as story subject (due to academic interpretation). The ‘Data Circuit’ then utilized two subsequent workshops to test the viability of this matrix of data contexts and expressions against past museum projects, with a further cycle of workshops then attempting to practically apply the logic and nomenclature of the matrix to current initiatives within the partner museums. Like a prism revealing the color spectrum, this final Synthesis Matrix has been able to provide a view into the concept of data that invites future study.

The insights gained from the application of the Data Circuit’s approach has offered intriguing avenues for further exploration in both academic and professional spheres. Each of the three partner museums are investigating ongoing challenges that relate to different aspects of museum practice. The Science Museum, for instance, is exploring how best to collect smart technology in a way that is able to represent their crucial associated data system networks. Whereas, with a new exhibition currently under development, Bletchley Park is concerned with methods of displaying the data that flowed through the site during World War II, in a way that is accessible and meaningful to a digital age audience. In Silicon Valley, the Computer History Museum is currently considering the best approach for its curators to take in the presentation of AI-related technology. Yet whether they seek to illuminate the past, contextualize the present, or preserve for the future, all three museums are concerned with larger systems of data and how these might best be represented in a museum setting. This is further complicated by the possibility that current practice may prove unsuited for such an undertaking. For example, as revealed in the project workshops, while it is possible for the museum to collect and exhibit digital objects, the process of archiving does not necessarily encompass digital technology’s associated ecosystem.

The reflections and insights of these three museums have highlighted and articulated the need to record data as system. Moreover, their responsive practice to this challenge begins to show ways of how the museum sector’s digital collections practices might need to evolve faced with continued digital technological progress.

The Temporal Structures of Computing History Narratives

Pausing, therefore, for a moment: we see that the ‘Object Circuit’ has reflected upon the material and social dimensions that influence the changing meanings and positions that the objects of computing history might assume. Complementarily, the ‘Data Circuit’ has turned to the challenges and questions that confluence around the collecting and curating of ‘data’ as an artefact of computing history. Tessellating with these approaches, the project’s third ‘Circuit’ has taken yet another (perhaps contrasting) perspective – exploring the narrative scaffolding in both the living and the telling of narratives of computing history. And so, changing the research focus from the social and cultural nature of digital objects to the concurrently tangible and intangible nature of digital collections, this Circuit has looked instead to the logical structures within digital narratives themselves. To do so, this sub-group of research has turned to a fundamental concept. Indeed, an elementary and ontological idea that sits at the heart of all conceptions of history, formations of story, and experiences of narration: time.

This exploration of time as a structure for computing history has been be led by the National Science and Media Museum (Bradford, UK) and The Centre for Computing History (Cambridge, UK). Both share previous and present challenges of curating histories of digital technology, be it one in the setting of a large, well-established, national multi-site UK museum funded directly by central government, the other within the context of a considerable smaller, younger, independent organisation. One with a remit that reaches across many aspects of the science of media, the other more tightly focused on interpreting specifically histories of personal computing. And so, as with its two companion ‘Circuits’, this is work that has been inherently practice-based – using past, current and planned work of the museum teams as a precinct in which to evidence, shape and challenge the project’s ideas.

Collaboratively, a series of workshops have enabled both museum teams to reflect upon notions of time and the temporality of experiencing ‘things’ (Cavarero, 2000; Kopytoff, 1996; Domínguez Rubio 2015), the role of chronology and teleology in history-making and historiography, particularly in the histories of technology and computing (Pihlainen, 2013; Natale 2016), as well as the time-based nature of visiting computer-based exhibits (Keramidas, 2015), and the evolving context of disciplinary evolution (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004) and institutional maturity (Parry 2013).

This sensitising to a number of different ‘dimensions’ of time, and ways in which temporality plays a part in the structuring of computing history in museums, has allowed the ‘Circuit’ to propose a working ‘framework’ that differentiates between what it posits as a series of individual ‘latitudes’ of time. This involves: a ‘technological’ latitude – where things are produced on time, developing beyond the museum in the market and society; a ‘narratival’ latitude – where accounts are relayed using time, unfolding in the exhibit’s interpretation; an ‘experiential’ latitude – where exhibits are visited in time, elapsing at the venue; an ‘organisational’ latitude – where practitioners are working through time, evolving in the institution; an ‘ontological’ latitude – where life is time, our aging in the world. What emerges is a way of recognising and identifying how notions and experiences of time are fundamental to the progression and sequential making of computer technology, the recounting and linear articulation of computer history, the duration and varied pacing of an exhibition event, the maturing practices and operational transformations of the museum, as well as the entropy and sensation of existence. At once the framework differentiates these distinct notions and roles of time within computing history exhibits, and yet conveys how inextricably bound to each other and inter-connected they always must be.

Furthermore, this emerging Framework on the temporal dimension of computing history in the museum, can then provide the basis for a series of separate lines of enquiry and points of reflection. The Framework enables a series of separate questions related to time (and the temporal dimension to exhibition building and experience) to come into focus. In other words, equipped by the Framework, the practitioner and scholar alike are able to notice and are empowered to ask: (on technological time) how a computing history exhibit references a developing market and a progressing technological knowledge, and what assumptions that exhibit makes about these market and expert contexts, and how are they temporalized; (on narratival time) what use of tense the narrative structures of computer history exhibitions observe, what is past, present and future in these narratives, how are they related, and what status is given to each; (on experiential time) what explicit reference to (and implicit acknowledge of) computing history exhibits make to the duration and pacing of the visit event, whether the exhibit assumes a length of time for the visit experience, and where (and how) it controls that time; (on organisational time) how the computing history exhibit is a product of an earlier set of practices and a previous stage of knowledge for the museum, where the contrasts might be (in subject knowledge, in curatorial approach, in design treatments) between this display and other displays in the museum; and (on ontological time) how the computing history exhibit reference the inscribed life of people (as makers and consumers), and the stages, passing and historical period of these lives, and how the exhibit (explicitly or implicitly) acknowledge the life and lifespan of the visitor.

Similar to the material and social ‘Dimensions’ (identified by the ‘Objects Circuit’) that provide a tool in which to trace the changing meanings of computing history objects, and much like the ‘Matrix’ (formed by the ‘Data Circuit’) that is now allowing us to understand, to articulate, and then to develop further the varied contexts and experiences in which ‘data’ is collected and curated by the museum within histories of computing, so this ‘Framework’ of temporal latitudes (developed by the project’s ‘Time Circuit’) is now offering us further means to focus and control our discussions around the making of computing history in the museum.

Conclusion

The conceptual frameworks described here (on objects, data and time) represent – at this mid-point in the research – the emerging insights of this project, but also the tools that will enable this work to explore further the ways that museums shape computing history.

And yet, as this collaboration progresses, there continues to be wider consequences of this study. Our consideration here of ‘museums’ and ‘computing history’ provides narratology and narrative studies with a unique context in which to observe how narratives can be constructed through objects in institutional settings – and the complex ways in which organisations, markets, society and the public concurrently shape this narrative. Similarly, our reflections on ‘data’ and ‘society’ provide collections management practices inside the museum with the context in which to confront and think through the challenge of not just using but collecting ‘information’ and ‘systems’ – and the unorthodox ways in which ‘data’ appears to decline the usual typologies and nomenclature of ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ heritage. Likewise, our examination of the confidence and capability with computing in these displayed histories provides further insights to our understanding of the evolving postdigital museum – not least the self-reflexive ways in which the institution’s on-going collecting and interpreting of digital technology (through these computing history exhibits) becomes an analogue of its growing digital maturity.

The project’s findings, moreover, call for fields such as media studies and computing history to consider more fully the key role that museums play in constructing narratives about the history of digital media. Although the myths and narratives that underpin the so-called “digital age” have recently gained much attention (see, among others, Mosco, 2004; Streeter, 2010), the role of museums in this context has been until now scarcely explored. Research presented in this paper shows how the relational and reflective nature of museum practice can provide a crucial resource to envision new ways to tell accessible, historically nuanced, and evidence-based narratives about “the digital”. This is particularly important in a moment when public debates about the governance of digital technologies drive the future of our societies.

In this regard, the ‘Circuits of Practice’ project will continue to work with its partner museums to develop not just a new understanding of how museums construct the history of computing, but of what it is to narrate, to collect, and – even – to be a museum today.

Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) UK, for its generous support of the ‘Circuits of Practice’ project 2020-21 (AH/T00276X/1).

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Cite as:
Parry, Ross, Foti, Petrina and Natale, Simone. "When Digital Becomes the Object: Developing Computing Histories in Museums." MW21: MW 2021. Published February 1, 2021. Consulted .
https://mw21.museweb.net/paper/when-digital-becomes-the-object-how-do-museums-form-computer-history-narratives/