The Smithsonian's quest for IT's ruby slippers

Officials must determine what really matters in IT -- and has a good story behind it

Among the artifacts in the National Museum of American History's vast collection is an egg that served as a prop in the 1979 movie Alien.

What makes the egg more important than the iPhone, which has yet to be selected by the caretakers of the museum? The responsibility for answering such questions lies with Peggy Kidwell, the museum's curator of mathematics, and Petrina Foti, manager of its computer collection.

Kidwell and Foti try to stay outside of technology's relentless marketing bubble in their work to determine what's really important in the flow of history. For example, the curators have to be convinced that a technology like the iPhone has enough cultural significance to have landmark status. "We like to have a little perspective," said Kidwell. On the other hand, the Radio Shack TRS-80, also known as the "Trash-80," which was unveiled in 1977, sits in the collection, as does an Apple-1 from 1976, a telegraph from 1844, a 30-ton World War II-era ENIAC computer, and a mouse or two.

Kidwell said the selection process keys on the story behind an object. It's why Evel Knievel's 1977 Harley-Davidson XR-750 is in the collection rather than another Harley. The item has to have near-universal cultural significance, like the ruby slippers from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, she added.

Today, nearly all of the American History Museum's prized technology collection remains in storage, where it was placed when the facility was closed in 2006 for a massive renovation. Before the renovation, the 900 artifacts in the IT collection were displayed in their own 14,000-square-foot space. The museum reopened a year ago without a stand-alone IT collection.

The next IT display will be part of an exhibit that aims to show how technology has fit into American commercial development. The museum is trying to raise $1 million to help fund the exhibit, and it hopes that work on the program is completed in time for the museum's 50th anniversary in 2014.

Since the renovation, only a few glass displays showcasing technology have been set up, including one showing the mobilization of math and science that came after the the former Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The display includes a Digi-Comp toy computer from 1965, the year the Smithsonian completed its first computer display. The Digi-Comp "was about as close as many Americans ever got to a computer in 1965," said Kidwell.

The museum next summer may launch a new exhibit that focuses on Cobol. It would include a binder with typed and handwritten notes from a meeting held in November 1959 to work on the new programming language, which was created because the Pentagon in particular wanted something that could run on any system. Cobol was released in 1960, so the exhibit would mark the language's 50th anniversary.

Today, Kidwell is on the hunt for additional Cobol artifacts, especially a branded coffee cup from the 1960s. The Smithsonian's collection includes coffee cups, buttons and other items that carry sayings, logos and quips about specific technologies. Such artifacts create a human connection with technology, she noted.

Kidwell said she's also interested in displaying the PC used by former President Jimmy Carter to write his memoirs. Carter was the first former president to use a PC for this purpose.

It's the human connection that gives technology significance to the museum's curators. The Smithsonian, for instance, recently added an iPod to its collection, after it was donated by an ordinary user. The donor was interviewed to find out how the iPod was used so that decades from now, people will understand why it mattered.

Such historical background is a "baseline requirement" for anything entering the collection, said Foti. "Anything that I've collected, I've made sure there is a history attached to it."

Apple's iPod entered the collection faster than most devices, but not until it was clear that "it was influencing a large number of people," Foti said.

Without a recorded history, an iPod is just a plastic box, especially in a museum that generally doesn't turn on devices because of risks posed by old power supplies and wiring. One exception could be interactive displays for the 40th anniversary of video games Pong and Magnavox Odyssey in 2012.

The Smithsonian focuses on material culture, which means software and platforms that exist in the cloud pose a special challenge to Kidwell and Foti. The problem with preserving software is its dependency on current technology. "A CD lasts for 20 years, and we go for 100 minimum," said Kidwell.

Smithsonian overseers talk to officials at other IT history collections, such as the Computer History Museum in San Francisco and IBM's internal collection, to determine how they preserve older technologies. Kidwell also noted that that the museum's goal is the preservation of IT technologies, whether in its facilities or not. "We don't try to collect everything," she said.

But the Smithsonian does have a lot. A high-ceilinged storage room filled with cabinets and an array of small objects, devices and documents is a treasure trove of IT history. And virtually everything is turned off. There are no red lights or beeps, just the complete silence of a history that Smithsonian hopes to keep preserved for centuries.

The importance of any one thing in Smithsonian's IT collection is something that will likely change with the generations. What IT technology from our era will have an enduring cultural and historical significance that's in any way similar to the ruby slippers worn in a 70-year-old movie? That's for time to decide.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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