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VI международная конференция
Россия, Нижний Новгород, НИУ ВШЭ, 25–27 сентября 2023 года
Computer museum expertise for a worldwide cooperation to develop a critical memory for the digital culture

Computer museum expertise for a worldwide cooperation to develop a critical memory for the digital culture

Establishment of a Computer Museum

After more than 40 years working at applying computer techniques to handling of  text and documentation (1968-2009), the team of the “Maison des Ecritures” (Scriptures House, Maredsous, Belgium, see:, of which I’m one of the founding fathers, had to make a decision. As they could not carry on their activity at medium and long term, they wondered if all traces of their pioneering computer works should be abandoned and scattered or if a way to preserve the memory of these accomplishments could be found. 

After having gathered competent advice,  the RePPI (Network for the Preservation of Computer Patrimony) was established in October 2009. It started in Belgium, soon followed by France and Switzerland. There was no real active computer museum neither in France nor in Belgium. However, several collectors had, with no institutional support, gathered items, evidences of the evolution of the digital culture. Only private visits were organized to discover these carefully kept and maintained treasures. 

Our network brought together four main collectors in a Collective Institution (2012). They searched a common way to maintain all traces of the striking evolution of computer techniques in a given geographical area (Belgium). 

At the end of 2012, this initiative was recognised when a conference was organized in Paris by the CNAM which is one of the founders of RePPI. CNAM is a very old technological museum (1789) which was striving to be the promoter of a French computer museum. As of today this project is still nowhere. However it incited the creation of a series of “memoires” on French digital evolution,  mainly due to the enthusiastic work of Isabelle Astic (see CNAM site). As Prof. P. Mounier-Kuhn wrote in “Le Monde”: the French are dreaming of it, the Belgians achieved it! 

To preserve is, above all, to establish a dynamic conservation of items of the past with a solid logistics (premises, management, financial security, etc.) in order to guarantee a perennial institution. In order to achieve this, the collectors went two ways: 

  1. To seek the support of a financially sound institution with clear socio-economic and cultural goals: the King Baudouin Foundation where a special fund was created  “Informatique Pionnière en Belgique – Baanbrekende Informatica in België” to which all collections were donated in view of a perennial conservation. 

  2. To create a Computer Museum (the first in Belgium and Northwest Europe) and to show its financial and cultural viability through the impetus given by the collectors creativity. 

This goal was achieved through an innovative scenography in harmony with the content (items are presented inside 20’ containers whose era of development is contemporary to the computer expansion; a sort of “batch processing”) and with rather modest financial resources; but with a museographic vision that was  as professional as possible. Inauguration was held on October 26, 2016, two years after the acquisition of a site not at all suited for a museum: a sports hall! 

What’s a museum? 

Beyond a few “cabinets des curiosités” (curiosity closets) owned by some moguls-collectors in the previous centuries, the museum concept appears and grows with the development of the modern city of the industrial revolution. We have to remember that it often shows the fruit of war chests or items of colonial pilferage! 

The core task of a museum is to preserve traces of human or natural activity and to present it to a given society in order to promote the development of its cultural intelligence (science, art, pedagogy, etc.). 

The museum is and remains a place of intelligent conservation of the past and/or of other realities inaccessible locally. Then it is also to preserve through communication, the accumulated traces as there is no intelligent preservation without life. It is therefore essential to let the artifacts express themselves towards the following generations in order to show how they made the present and to indicate the direction of the development of the artifacts created by man. 

The importance of such places has been clearly demonstrated by André Gob (A. Gob et N. Drouguet, La museologie, Histoire, développement, enjeux actuels. Paris 2014.4 (2003) and Umberto Ecco (U. Ecco et J. Pezzini, Le musée demain, Paris 2015).

To develop and understand cultural intelligence the museum has to become a tool more and more in phase with the human structure whose intelligence cannot develop correctly without a tangible relation to material elements that surrounds him or that he has created. 

Tourism has evolved (a rather new phenomenon since it has developed after paid vacations (1936 in France and Belgium) became available) and scenographers have developed “interpretation centers” aiming at a large audience with emphasis on the recreational aspect of communication. This way they only keep the pedagogic side of the museum. Of course they are a logical complement to the dynamics of a museum but cannot supersede the essential purpose of museums which is to preserve the memory. 

What makes a computer museum so specific? 

The first and major characteristic of a computer museum is the rather novelty of a technology which has emerged after World War II. In this way they are similar to space museums. For this reason they all appear after the 90’s when they emerge as memory shrines. 

Another characteristic : these museums have to present artificial realities linked to the use of electricity (or magnetism) combined with boolean algebra in order to treat information through programmed algorithms in fields managed until then only through human intelligence (with some mechanical extensions for tallying, calculus, registering, etc.: abacus, typewriter, mechanical computing devices, etc.). 

The lightning evolution of numerical technologies has to be presented through artifacts which have been used for the development of these techniques and the applications that these artifacts have been able to process more widely, with more reliability and speed than the human mind which has created these algorithms and their technical supports. 

The main challenge in a computer museum:  to make sure it clearly presents the various systemic layers of the applications of which the hardware (steel, plastics, rare metals and others) is only the tip of a complex iceberg that is always aimed at an “application”. The challenge in museology as in museography is to focus not only on “objects” (hardware) but also on software without which there is no computer science. And in the “software”  there is also a need to integrate the engineering concept of the computer and the various operational layers (as they are very well shown in the INTEL Museum in San Jose, CA), such as analysis, programming (always made for an “application”), control systems, inter-operational norms, documentation, maintenance over time of the electronic data with pertaining documentation. 

The Living Computer Museum and Lab created by Paul Allen in Seattle has lived up to this challenge. Everything that is shown to the public (including the oldest machines) has to be in working order.  This monumental task took three persons seven years to produce the documentary bases; out of the 27 employees, seven are engineers in charge of maintenance and presentation of results. To be noted is the reconstruction of a (1955-1970) “computer room” with all the technical requirements (cooling, ventilation, raised floor, etc.).

Another aspect is initiated by the Software Heritage (INALF, Paris) created by Roberto Di Cosmo in 2016, supported by UNESCO since 2017. 

Maintaining (both by daily use and by regular updates) of a search engine such as Knowhowsphere, created by the House of Scripture (Maredsous), an application to manage texts, documentations, artefacts in large archives, shows a similar urge to keep alive an immaterial heritage. It is now used at the service of a museum and presenting the full inventories (both materials and immaterial) to all kinds of public of the NAM-IP Computer Museum and at the same time preserving in the long term a pioneering application in this field (see : - Collections). 

International cooperation: an invitation to share through action

It is to be noted that ICOM has no specific section for computer science, its history and its impact on the whole planet even though several computer museums are members of ICOM.

Besides, after a quick inquiry, we could not find any international association of computer museums. The CCS (Computer Conservation Society) is the only functioning national association that was created in 1989 in the U.K. The CCS has quite a few successful achievements such as the conservation of the Manchester “Baby” and the “Colossus” at Bletchley Park (see their website and their publication Resurection). 

We have tried to establish a “ Réseau de Préservation des Patrimoines Informatiques (RePPI)” (Computer Heritage Preservation Network) for french speaking Europe at first. But no formal establishment exist as of today. 

Our inquiry has shown the existence of about fifty computer museums mainly in Europe and North America. (see addendum 1- see – Nam-IP/INFO 2019/4). Today we are trying to organize for 2021 or 2022 the first Computer Museums International Conference in partnership with the faculty of Computer Science of the Université de Namur. The goal is to identify the specific problems of such museums and maybe to create within ICOM a collective movement in order to establish new computer memory museums mostly for the southern part of the planet. 

There are many topics to be covered and we have provided a list, the English version was created with the help of Cinde Moya, chief curator of the Living Computer Museum + Lab in Seattle. (see addendum 2 – NAM-IP/INFO,2019/4).

As a conclusion

Beyond the traditional concept of museum as developed until the 50’s, we have to build medium and long term memory tools to allow future generations of mankind to root in a “history” the ongoing development in a way that is different from all the museums who are based on the culture of the “alphabetical code” forcing us to create museums based on the culture of the “numerical code”. It will have to include the use of electronic support both for communication as for the conservation of its content.
If we want to use this memory as a tool to increase knowledge of beauty and truth, helping mankind to achieve even more creativity, then even if many practices can be borrowed from experiences and from standard procedures, be it at an international level (ICOM),  we need to adapt them with a critical mind to the new realities of the digital world.

Об авторе: Administrateur de NAM-IP, asbl Président du Comité de Gestion du Fonds Informatique Pionnière en Belgique (FRB)
Материалы международной конференции Sorucom 2020
автора 10.10.2020