Have you ever had an antique piece of technology that filled you with such delight and nostalgia that you thought, “Surely a museum would love to have this”?
You’re not alone.
“We get offers weekly, up to 600 things a year,” says Kirsten Tashev, vice president of collections and exhibitions at the Computer History Museum. “We accept about half of that. An art museum might take in two pieces a year.”
The museum “looks for things that represent a seminal technology breakthrough or have historical significance,” says senior curator Dag Spicer. But it also has an astrology computer used by Nancy Reagan’s astrologer. “[It’s] a stand-alone fixed-purpose computer; only a few hundred were made. There’s a great link to history there. And we love failed products that didn’t make it due to technical or marketing reasons.”
Acquisition cost is a factor and, with rare exceptions, the institutions discussed in this article don’t do purchases. At most, they may cover transportation costs. But some otherwise desirable objects are too big or fragile for most museums. “For example, we would not have a space for an Airbus A380 if we were offered one,” says Bernhard Weidemann, press officer at the Deutsches Museum, in Munich. “Some years ago, the museum was offered an Ariane 5 rocket. We could have gotten it for free—but we would have needed a helicopter because it was too big to go through the streets, and bridges would have had to be closed off.”
“I said no to a Lisp machine in California,” says Deborah Douglas, curator for science and technology at the MIT Museum. “We already had one. And it was heavy; it would have been expensive to transport, about $5000. If it had been closer, we might have considered it.” [See sidebar, "What Do Museums Want?"]
The largest item in the Computer History Museum’s collection is an IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer, from the early 1960s. “Packed up, it’s about 2500 square feet,” says Spicer. On the small end, he says, “we have a four-layer diode made by William Shockley, coinventor of the transistor, from his lab.”
At Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, “our largest object is a German U-boat, 252 feet long and weighing 750 tons, that was captured by the United States during World War II,” says head curator Kathleen McCarthy.