Interview

Daniel Dern recently interviewed Mary Hopper for a potential story.

Here is the raw text of Daniel’s questions and Mary’s responses.

DD: How did you get into the history/learning about computers?
MH: Essentially, I fell into it backwards. I’ve been teaching computer related subjects since 1985.

DD Any fond childhood memories of museums? Computers?
MH: It depends on what you mean by “childhood” — my first experience with computers was learning to program in high school. Our school had access to a Honeywell timesharing system through a teletype with paper tape (but no monitor). I learned to program BASIC, FORTRAN etc. and played games like Lunar Lander. By the time the four years were up, my teacher was giving me games from the U. of Illinois PLATO project to hack for fun. However, I believe the most important thing about the system we had was that it was networked, and all of the high schools in the city had teletypes, so we basically formed an online community playing and talking over the network. I believe being introduced to the computers at the age my fellow students and I were had a profound impact on all of us, and it shows in what we all ended up doing later in our lives.

DD What led you (and the rest of the team) to do this?
MH: So far, Digital Den is by far the main force behind this initiative in terms of collections, time, project management, financial investment etc. There are many others making valuable contributions, but no one else at the same scale. I, through Digital Den, also have a small team of developers and a wonderful group of advisers. These are my friends and colleagues that have agreed to help me out with this adventure.

My original goal in setting up Digital Den was to make my own computer collection available to the general public. It is essentially my “teaching collection” developed as an extension of my years of teaching a variety of computing related subjects. The main audience I had in mind at the time was actually the many college students in the area who are studying computing related subjects, but have never seen much of what they are learning about in classes (e.g. computer science, game design, educational computing etc.). I have attached my CV — a glance through it will give you a gist of what is in my personal collection and how it got there through my years at Purdue, MIT, Lesley and Northeastern as well as my computer business in Harvard Square in the 1990s. The hard-core vintage computer collectors call me more of an “accumulator.” It was only after months of learning about all of the other collectors with a passion for computer history that I decided to extend the idea into setting up the New Computer Museum.

DD: What is the current goal/purpose for the NEWCM?
MH: The goal of the New Computer Museum is to actively initiate and support efforts to preserve the unique computing history in the New England area that will not otherwise be preserved by other institutions. The secondary goal is to make that history available to the public and build a community around the preservation and exhibition of the collections.

DD How, other than geo, will it compare/contrast to other computer museums, eg CHM?
MH: First of all, when you look at other computer museums, it is important to realize that they didn’t just pop into existence fully-formed as they are now. Each of them took many years to develop from small ad-hock collections into the unique institutions that they have become. This is still in the first year of this initiative, so of course it is not reasonable to compare the development of this to those who have been around longer. That said, the New Computer Museum is evolving into a different type of animal than other museums in a number of ways. The nature of the cost of space in the Boston/Cambridge area is one of the highest in the country right now, so finding a good location has been a serious challenge. I maintained a persistent public space for Digital Den at Metropolitan Storage for six months last year, and I learned that a hard to see space was not as effective at making my collections available to the public in a few hour long evening event in a relatively easy to find public venue. Essentially, when more people show up for a single night than visited a public location for four months, it makes you reconsider how you want to spend your time and financial resources.

Over the last two months I’ve moved away from paying for a full-time computer archive in a low-visibility location. Instead, I maintain a small office focused on hosting more visible “pop-up museum” events. This challenge of finding a location for a “persistent museum” has actually been healthy because it forced a reassessment of basic assumptions about what a “museum” is and why. When you deconstruct the concept of a “museum,” you find that the different aspects don’t really need to be co-located. Essentially, public galleries, events, storage, offices don’t all have to be in the same place. In fact, many traditional museums don’t necessarily co-locate all of these functions either. Storage facilities are often off-site and not available to the public, while social events might be held at different venues. Most critically, storing standing collections isn’t even a necessity and can even be a serious liability if you don’t have the resources to provide proper long-term stewardship. This is the heart of what is different about the New Computer Museum.

After I decided to make my own collections available to the public under the name Digital Den, I found out that I was not alone. There are actually a surprising number of individuals and organizations in the New England area who have collections, sometimes even vast collections of relatively rare and valuable computers, but no way to bring them to the public because of a lack of publicly accessible space. That is where the New Computer Museum comes in.

DD: What’s the relationship of D/Den to NEWCM?
MH: I, through Digital Den, am still by far the main financial investor, organizer and exhibitor in the initiative to bring a computer history museum back to this area, but the New Computer Museum is an increasingly formal coalition of other individuals and groups interested in making their collections available to the public too. A Meetup group is currently serving as the embodiment of the New Computer Museum.

DD: Who/what are some of the other people/orgs involved in NEWCM? Coalition, Collaboration, Collaborators, Exhibitors
MH: The best example of another contributor besides Digital Den is Adam Rosen’s Vintage Mac Museum — Adam has provided some of his vintage Mac collection to exhibit at each event, and he also was kind enough to sponsor a social get-together after one of our events. Another example is Bryan Harwell’s Replay’d Game Store in Allston — Bryan has been very generous in loaning us vintage game systems for exhibits and providing advice for setting them up. More recently, Jamie York of the Game Underground in Framingham also pitched in to help us get some game systems up and running. The Rhode Island Computer Museum and a unique, relatively well known collector in New Hampshire have also provided exhibits.

So, the New Computer Museum has become more as a distributed network of individuals and organizations that hold historic computer related collections and want to make them available to the public. All of the collections are currently loaned for exhibits and then returned after the events are over. There could be a point in time in the future when the New Computer Museum will have standing collections, but this would only be if there were enough resources, basically an endowment, to support their guaranteed long-term preservation. In the meantime, the vintage computing community is doing a better job of taking care of their own beloved collections than an under-funded museum could.

In addition, I am talking to numerous organizations in the Boston/Cambridge area about ways we might cooperate on events, exhibits and spaces (e.g. Cambridge Historical Society, Cyberarts and Art Technology New England). Finally, and most importantly of all, the Microsoft NERD Center has been extremely generous in sponsoring us through providing much needed space for our “pop-up museum” events.

DD: Current, target location(s)?
MH: We could benefit from the loan of a well located space to hold a temporary exhibit for a longer period of time (i.e. longer than our current “pop-up museum” events that last from a few hours to a day). Anything from a week to a short-term lease would be great.

DD: Short and long term goals?
MH: The goal is to find increasingly larger, more public and visible locations to hold exhibitions for increasing periods of time (week, month etc.). Many people suggest spaces in relatively non-accessible/visible places. However, it is my strong belief that a worthwhile location must be in a highly visible space close to one of the high-tech-tourist-traffic T-stops (e.g. Lechmere, Kendall, Central, Harvard etc.). Right now my main focus is on finding a space in Central Square, but other locations could work as well.

Logistical realities (e.g. weather), scarce resources and other considerations have led to the pragmatic decision to focus on the computer history in the local Boston/Cambridge area for now, then expand to the outer Route 128 area. The long term goal is to sponsor “pop-up museum” events and perhaps even small galleries in other places in New England, but that would require far more resources.

DD: What can people do ($, time, stuff, space, other?)
MH: We have enough computers for the size and scale of the exhibits we are able to hold at this point. The main thing we need is a good space for exhibits and events. Of course, this generally requires financial resources. Those would be useful, so anyone interested in donating is welcome to contact me. It would be particularly wonderful to find someone willing and able to sponsor the New Computer Museum on anywhere near the scale as Digital Den. Finally, we can always use more people interested in computer history to join the New Computer Museum community through the Meetup. The more the merrier!

New Computer Museum Meetup

Posted in Interview

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