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.
The largest object in the Smithsonian Institution’s electricity collection, according to Harold D. Wallace Jr., curator of the collection, is is “the No. 1 hydroelectric generator from the 1985 Niagara Falls Power Station—12 feet tall by 14 feet in diameter, weighing 85 tons.” On a smaller scale, the museum recently accepted the engineering prototype of RCA’s first CCD-based broadcasting camera. “An early model [was] used in the 1984 World Series, with superslow motion,” says Wallace. “You could see the stitching on the baseball. We also collected a wafer of CCD chips and a memento of the Emmy Award that RCA won in 1985 for the technology.”
Some collections include models or replicas, rather than the actual thing. “The German company that built the dipole magnets used in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider built us a smaller-scale model of a [cross] section of the tunnel,” says the Deutsches Museum’s Weidemann. “And we have a replica of Konrad Zuse’s relay-based Z3, which was the world’s first fully functional programmable computer.”
But some things are outside a collection's scope, or just too weird.
“The weirdest things are people’s human remains,” says the Computer History Museum’s Spicer. He declined to name names but said they were “well known to the computing community at large.”
The Museum of Science and Industry’s McCarthy says, “We get offers like ‘a space ship has crashed in our backyard, and we want to donate the unusual material it’s made of.’ ”
“My physics colleague gets offered perpetual motion machines and antigravity devices,” reports Anja Thiele, curator for computer science and mathematical instruments at the Deutsches Museum. “They don’t work, but people offer them. My energy department colleague gets ideas on how to save the world, water the desert, etc. I don’t get anything quite that strange.”
For more about the museums discussed above and their collections, see sidebar “Selected Museums.”