Digital Den creator pushes for a new Boston-area computer museum

Copyright - Rus Gant
Copyright - Rus Gant

The role Massachusetts has played in the history of computing is undeniable.

However, with all the historic ideas, innovators, and companies — SpaceWar, VisiCalc, Digital Equipment Corporation, BBN, Data General, Prime, Wang, and, of course, MIT — the greater Boston area hasn’t had an open-to-the-public, central gathering spot to celebrate the area’s role in the growth of computers and computer-based technology since the late 1990’s.

It was 1999, to be specific, when the Computer Museum, located on Boston’s Museum Wharf, moved to Mountain View, California, renaming itself the Computer History Museum in the process.

There are still a few small treasure troves of computer tech around the city, to be sure, like the MIT Museum, some of the exhibits in Boston’s Museum of Science, and the seasonal monthly “MIT Flea” tech market, along with university, corporate and personal collections.

But there hasn’t been anything that is on-going, computer-tech-focused, and larger in scale, until  Mary Hopper started up the Digital Den in 2013 (covered in Hiawatha Bray’s August 2013 news article).

Digital Den began as a “see-and-try” public space in Kendall Square where anyone could walk-in and try some of the computer and gaming consoles on display. Most of the devices come from Hopper’s own collections, including lots of personal computer hardware and software dating back to the early PC and Apple days, some old virtual reality gear, computer games, and children’s computing machines.

In the months following Digital Den’s opening, Hopper learned about other exhibit-worthy collections in the area, like Adam Rosen’s Vintage Mac Museum in Malden.

“I decided to extend the idea behind Digital Den,” Hopper said. “There are 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.”

Hopper is currently working to create a new computer museum for the Boston/Cambridge community under the not-surprising name, New Computer Museum.

“My primary goal is to tackle the challenge of historical preservation and educational access to computers, particularly those that are part of the New England area’s history that may not be preserved by other institutions,” she said. “My secondary goal is to make that history available to the public and build a community around the preservation and exhibition of the collections.”

FOR NOW, MEET-UPS AND “POP-UP EXHIBITS”

Long-term, Hopper would love a permanent space for exhibits and networking — which, among other things requires some serious funding.

In the meantime, Hopper has been organizing get-togethers, using a mix of MeetUp, email, phone, and F2F (“face-to-face”) chats. To date, she’s done about ten — a mix of “pop-up museum events,” talks, and schmoozing. “I’ve established that there is interest in this project,” Hopper reports.

The most recent such event was Friday, March 14, at the Microsoft NERD Center in Kendall Square. In addition to many items from Hopper’s own collections like a pre-production Oculus Rift VR headset, there were several items from Adam Rosen’s Vintage Mac Museum as well as an exhibit from Art Technology New England  (ATNE).

From Adam Rosen's Vintage Mac Museum (photo by Rus Gant)4Globe_DigDen_Mar14_DSCF32804Globe_DigDen_Mar14_DSCF32814Globe_DigDen_Mar14_DSCF3242

According to Hopper, “We had about twenty attendees for the evening session, including supporters, collaborators like Adam Rosen of Vintage Mac Museum and Dan Hermes on behalf of ATNE and Cyberarts, as well as potential collaborators like Gavin Kleespies from the Cambridge Historical Society Also, earlier during the day, “About twenty people came to look at the items I’d brought in and had set up, mostly graduate students in digital media,” she said.

Panoramic view of exhibits (photo by Neil Carlson)

“We successfully demonstrated the capacity to create a ‘hands-on’ computer museum that people really enjoy visiting, and showed just a small sample of the potential exhibits the New Computer Museum could have,” said Hopper. “Attendees had a lot of fun exploring what was there, and they left wishing that there was a standing museum for them to visit.”

Already, Hopper has at least three more events planned. “I’m trying to have one to two events each month,” she said. Some are for networking, some may be panel discussions, some may include topic-specific focus — and some events are exhibitions in partnership with other organizations, like CyberArts and the Cambridge Historical Society.

NEXT STEPS TOWARD A NEW COMPUTER MUSEUM

So far, Hopper’s endeavors have been primarily self-funded. Most of the monetary contributions are from supporters, she said, and have been roughly the cost of a good dinner or a night out. “Even ten or twenty thousand dollars would let this move to the next step of incorporating and finding better temporary locations.”

Creating a new institution takes more than money, of course. “Digital Den’s team and advisors are contributing time and expertise,” Hopper noted. “And other organizations are helping, like the exhibitors who loan computers for the pop-up museum events, and the Microsoft NERD Center, which is letting us use some of their space for our Meetups.”

Hopper wants her efforts to lead to permanent exhibits (longer-running, not just daily or hourly pop-up events) and bigger spaces.

“Anything from a long weekend to a short-term lease would be great,” said Hopper. “And, funding permitting, evolve into a standing collection at a permanent location.”