When Digital Becomes the Object: Developing Computing Histories in Museums

Friday, April 30, 2021: 9:00am - 10:30am - - Paper Session

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

Published paper: When Digital Becomes the Object: Developing Computing Histories in Museums

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.

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/

Other key references:

Bell, J. A., & Kuipers, J. C. (Eds.). (2018). Linguistic and Material Intimacies of Cell Phones. Routledge.

Bell, J., et al. (2018). "Unseen Connections: The Materiality of Cell Phones." Anthropological Quarterly, 91(2), 465-484.

Blyth, T. (2013). Narratives in the history of computing: Constructing the Information Age gallery at the Science Museum. In A. Tatnall, T. Blyth, & R. Johnson (Eds.), Making the history of computing relevant (pp. 25–34). Heidelberg: Springer.

Blyth, T. (2016). Exhibiting information: developing the Information Age gallery at the Science Museum. Information & Culture, 51(1), 1-28. Blyth, T. (2014). Information age: six networks that changed our world. Scala Arts Publishers, Inc..

Ceruzzi, P. E. (2003). A history of modern computing (2nd ed.). London, Eng. ; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Drotner, K., Dziekan, V., Parry, R., & Schrøder, K. C. (Eds.). (2018). The Routledge handbook of museums, media and communication. Routledge.

Foti, P. (2018). Collecting and exhibiting computer-based technology: Expert Curation at the Museums of the Smithsonian Institution. London: Routledge.

Keramidas, K. (2015). The Interface Experience: A User's Guide. Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture.

Natale, S. (2016). “Unveiling the biographies of media: On the role of narratives, anecdotes and storytelling in the construction of new media’s histories.” Communication Theory, 26(4), 431–449.

Parry, R. (2005). Digital heritage and the rise of theory in museum computing. Museum Management and Curatorship, 20(4), 333–348.

Parry, R. (2013). The end of the beginning: Normativity in the postdigital museum. Museum Worlds, 1(1), 24-39.

Sumner, J. (2016). “Making computers boring: Thoughts on historical exhibition of computing Technology from the Mass-Market Era.” Information & Culture, 51(1), 29–53.

Turner, F., & Larson, C. (2015). “Network celebrity: Entrepreneurship and the new public intellectuals.” Public Culture, 27(1), 53–84.

Weber, M. (2016). Self-fulfilling history: How narrative shapes preservation of the online world. Information & Culture, 51(1), 54–80.