Digital Museums For Digital History

About The Authors

Alexey Pomigalov has a Ph.D in history, worked as a researcher and curator in the State Hermitage Museum and the Fabergé Museum. Since 2019, he has been … More about Alexey & Alexander ↬

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Computer technologies have simplified the process of recording historical events, technological breakthroughs, contemporary art, and everyday life. However, the notion of digital archiving can be deceptive. Often our technical footprints are carved in sand rather than stone.

Technological development is an iterative process. One might assume that any engineer has at least a rough idea of how we got from the first wheel to self-driving cars or from the abacus to fintech applications, but this is a risky thing to take for granted. Even digital heritage needs museums to be preserved. Without them, the history of the Internet and the evolution of computers and software could be lost.

Artefacts from the electronic era, together with information stored on diskettes, CDs, and DVDs, as well as magnetic or punched tapes, will soon disappear — much more quickly than canvas, paper, parchment or papyrus. Computer hardware loses its value quickly, and obsolete equipment is discarded. Entire generations of hardware that played an integral role in technological development and had an enormous impact on our society are destroyed.

The desire to preserve these assets is what fueled our own efforts with the DataArt IT Museum — digital heritage preserved digitally for anyone and everyone to see, hear, and watch. In this article, we explore the evolution of the museum, how recent innovations informed our own approach, and what you can do to help preserve IT history.

Rise Of The Museum

The idea of a public museum is relatively new, dating to the seventeenth century, and fundamentally differs from private collections. Beginning with the Kunstmuseum Basel (founded in 1661) and Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum (1683), university and municipal chambers of curiosities were intended to be not just an attraction but an introduction to natural diversity or a brief history of human thought. With the rise of industrial exhibitions in the nineteenth century, this idea was taken to a new level.

The Crystal Palace Exhibition held in London in 1851 showcased the achievements of the industrial revolution and established a tradition of craftsmanship museums. After the exhibition finished, many of the displays became part of the founding collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and London’s Science Museum. Similarly, exhibits from the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair formed the core of Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts. The 1881 International Exposition of Electricity served as an inspiration for Munich’s Deutsches Museum.

A color lithograph of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851
Color lithograph of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851. (Source: The Victoria and Albert Museum) (Large preview)

A similar trend was witnessed in the United States. The Smithsonian Institution owes much to the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 held in Philadelphia, while Chicago’s Science and Industry Museum opened following the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The scientist George Brown Goode, who oversaw many early exhibitions at the Smithsonian, believed that museums should serve as a vehicle for adult education, reminding people of the value of civilization. They should, in his own words, “be a house full of ideas.”

Machinery, unique items made by the best craftsmen, mass-produced goods, and even the pavilions themselves formed the core of future technical museum collections. These museums inspired engineers, just as art galleries inspire new generations of artists.

The Museum As A Data Bank

Although a boon for creativity and opportunities to share knowledge accumulated in industrial (and art) museums was (and to an extent, remains) limited because physical presence was necessary. A tantalizing possibility of digital collections is that they can be viewed anywhere by anyone.

The first digitization projects were started in the 1960s, and in 1967 the Metropolitan Museum of Art initiated the Museum Computer Network (MCN). In the beginning, it included 15 museums, and the number of participants grew rapidly. Now, the MCN’s stated mission is “to grow the digital capacity of museum professionals by connecting them to ideas, information, opportunities, proven practices, and each other.”

Museums, archives, and libraries have experimented with digital alternatives but have principally been concerned with preserving physical objects that could be damaged over time. Digital copies have been available to a relatively small number of scholars. In 1991, the American Association of Museums named Treasures of the Smithsonian, an interactive program on CD, its Muse Award winner. You can watch footage of it in action on YouTube.

Pictures of Treasures of the Smithsonian CD
‘You can browse through the treasures by museum, category, date or theme. Popular columnist Edward Park provides interesting commentary. Special features let you walk around an object, play its sounds or zoom in on it.’ Nice! (Large preview)

Mass scanning and modeling started only in the 1990s when the necessary hardware became less expensive, and broadband Internet created a new kind of consumer for digital materials. Users could enjoy a collection or conduct research from any location. Subsequently, museums enjoyed a new marketing tool to grow loyal audiences.

Digital collections also made it possible to crosslink artefacts, taking knowledge exchange to a new level by allowing any item to be put into cultural context with a focus on time, tradition, mutual influence, or ideological kinship. The opportunity to upload videos, audio recordings, and hi-res pictures make these collections more engaging to a general audience, more useful for researchers, and more attractive for designers.

It was at this point in the evolution of the museum that we began developing our own.

DataArt Museum Project

Our project started with a collection of old hardware that had accumulated in one of our offices. Among the motley laptops, joysticks, terminals, and beepers, there were some very interesting things, although the collection hardly rivaled those of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley or The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley, England.

Apart from these institutions, there are plenty of other computer museums in the world. Most focused on electronic curiosities interesting only to connoisseurs who can truly appreciate a Hewlett-Packard mainframe or a 1990s orange-screen laptop. For us, this was definitely not the way to go.

What turns a collection into a museum? We think it’s the context. Put old dusty hardware into historical, social, or cultural surroundings to explain their historical significance, and the stories come alive.

We realized we needed to focus on the specific story behind these relics, a story relevant to us and one only we could tell. Our collection might not be the most complete, but it would be perfect for the story we want to tell. For us, as a company founded by Eastern Europeans and at the very beginning hiring predominantly from this region, the choice was obvious. We decided to start with the IT story of the former Soviet bloc — from East Germany to Armenia.

The first generations of Eastern European computer engineers grew up behind the Iron Curtain — penniless, without access to modern technology, the latest scientific publications, quality components, or home computers. In the face of such challenges, how did this region give birth to a professional culture that still produces brilliant IT specialists?

In 1962, Hrachya Hovsepyan, an engineer from Yerevan, received a commission to clone the French CAB 500 computer. It seemed to be cutting-edge but used a bulky magnetic drum memory. Hrachya recalls:

“Our technologies did not allow us to reproduce the CAB 500, and my idea was completely different. I wanted to build a parallel-action machine with microprogrammed control. That’s why I kept a low profile and did my work on the sly.”

This is a typical situation that illustrates relations between engineers and their commissioners (only Soviet officials could place an order for any developers). Hovsepyan’s pilot project resulted in three generations of “Nairi” computers, and his team came closer to creating a machine for personal use than anyone else in the Eastern bloc. At the same time, there was little wonder that he was later fired from his position and spent years fighting for the right to leave the USSR.

A screenshot of the article in Russian about the technologies development in the USSR
(Large preview)

We wanted to share the untold history and highlight the forgotten heroes of East and Central European IT, as well as learn about the details of their everyday jobs in the context of the industry’s strategic plans, along with the official and unofficial cultural scenes in the background.

This includes scientists who worked in the first computer labs, young men and women responsible for the maintenance of the first computers, inventors creating unique platforms on ternary logic, military engineers developing the Soviet proto-Internet, and thousands of enthusiasts soldering together rudimentary computers in their kitchens. That reality — DIY by necessity — can still be seen behind the approaches taken by Eastern European developers.

Vera Glushkova, an engineer, historian, and daughter of the cybernetics pioneer Victor Glushkov, told us about engineers in Kyiv:

“Business and commercial orders were a serious crime, but some people working in Kyiv assembled such incredible things for personal use and sometimes even on demand! One engineer, Evgeny Bondarenko, who worked on the pre-personal MIR-computer project, had all the desks in his office covered with tiny parts and circuits. He could design and assemble anything from a radio up to a pipeline processor.”

Local peculiarities of this kind make face-to-face interviews with active participants of any East European computer project especially important. Luckily, modern means of communication make it easier to contact them and do such recordings, no matter where they live now. We store these audio and video files in our collection alongside hardware, books, documents, etc., and publish their transcribed versions on our website and other media, either fully or in parts. We also try to support texts with auxiliary materials, scanning private archives’ photos and documents, digitizing videos, or simply linking our stories to relevant pieces we can find on the web.

Thus we get together exclusive findings and public domain information, making new sources accessible to the audience and suggesting another view on some well-known facts. Such a combination seems to be essential to a digital museum that can partly separate itself from its physical collection and transform to follow its curators’ ideas. At the same time, it still needs to keep its role as an artefact storage not to lose its museum roots. Otherwise, it takes the risk of becoming an internet blog.

Our museum is a balance between CSR and marketing projects. It’s consistent with the DataArt corporate culture, as we generally look upon ourselves as geeks, people interested in digging deeper than they must. At the same time, we’re glad to use our resources to help potential researchers. That’s why we add original audio, and sometimes video, to our projects — we would be glad to share full versions of our recordings with historians, social anthropologists, or scholars of any kind.

A screenshot of the page from DataArt IT Museum
(Large preview)

A comedy film called “The Heist at Midnight”, directed by engineer Radik Ananyan, is an example of how different aspects of history can be linked by an artefact’s preservation. Ananyan founded an amateur studio in the Yerevan Institute of Mathematical Machines, where he and most of his actors and film crew worked. The movie was shot in the institute, and we can see several of the first-generation machines from the 1950s. At the same time, it’s evidence of a multidimensional cultural life circulating around the engineering community in Yerevan. Later, Radik digitalized the movie and let DataArt’s IT museum use it in our project relating to Armenian computing, which later became a book.

We also try to look at IT history from different angles to stimulate discussion.

Throughout history, a variety of catastrophes not only took human lives but destroyed a vast number of historical artefacts. Thousands of books and historical documents, art, design objects, and more were lost to the ages, destroying traditions and threatening identities. As recent events have shown, such destruction is not a thing of the past.

The preservation of knowledge is among the key skills demanded by any field of science, humanities, or fine art. There are ways to contribute to this succession, which is the core of our civilization. It’s not only about returning books to the library but also about preserving your personal history and helping store data collected on a much larger scale.

Each of us collects photos and videos from our lives, documenting special occasions, our daily operations at work, vacations, and more. We scan our documents and complete online forms, write texts, create spreadsheets, and together generate billions of media files every day. We choose which files to keep and what should go into the bin. We store our archives in the way modern digital devices allow us, using metadata and giving names to every item.

Providing descriptions for stored files is a good idea — you’ll appreciate it later. We also shouldn’t underestimate how fascinating such information and visuals (sometimes accidentally preserved in family files) could be for a researcher in the future.

Several ideas for private data archiving:

  • Look at your data and attempt a first glance analysis to get an idea of how you might prioritize and arrange your files.
  • Divide your data into sections by origin or topic.
  • Create folders based on the divisions and sort your files into them.
  • Describe the data in the file name and add metadata where it is possible (e.g., geotags, or just tags, comments, and so on).
  • Avoid copies or similar files that can consume archival space.
  • Make regular backups of significant data and files and store them in the cloud and offline.

Private archives are something we take care of ourselves, and you never know what information our heirs may find interesting one day. Take care of your own little pieces of history.

It’s significantly more complicated to maintain the history of an organization, a professional community, a technology, an industry, a region, or even a war. These types of projects are partly supported by governments but can’t be totally covered by national institutions. At the same time, such data could be easily manipulated or erased from their archives. This is possible with digital artefacts, just as it is with paper, parchment, or clay tablets.

A picture that represents 5 steps of a project: collect, preserve, process, verify, investigate
Projects like the Syrian Archive preserve digital media not for creative reasons but to further advocacy, justice, and accountability. (Large preview)

There are many non-profit organizations and individual enthusiasts who preserve copies of hard-printed or even digitally created materials. But they need our help, either in the form of a donation or through direct volunteer assistance.

If you’re unsure where to start, here are some projects to support:

Our digital heritage can be an incredible source of inspiration and enlightenment. Computer hardware is just as important as antique writing implements we see displayed in museums. It deserves the same respect and care. There are ways we can all take part in this mission, should we choose to accept it.

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