When Digital Becomes the Object: How Do Museums Form Computer History Narratives?


Ross Parry, University of Leicester, UK, Simone Natale, University of Turin, Italy, Petrina Foti, Rochester Institute of Technology, USA

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); Computing History Museum (California, USA); the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (Milan, Italy); 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.

Previous MuseWeb papers related to this Proposal:

Foti, Petrina. "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 October 8, 2020. https://mw2016.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/representing-the-web-how-has-the-national-museum-of-american-history-collected-and-curated-internet-related-technology/

Keramidas, Kimon. "Exhibiting the interface: Curating computers and designing didactic user experiences." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 16, 2015. Consulted October 8, 2020. https://mw2015.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/exhibiting-the-interface-curating-computers-and-designing-didactic-user-experiences/

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