Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California
Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California

On Tuesday, January 11, 2011 the Computer History Museum (CHM), home to the world’s largest information technology collection, will unveil a 21st century makeover when it reopens its newly renovated building, with more than double the exhibition space, added research and education components, and a vast new digital platform.

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley’s technology corridor, and making visible the relationship between computing history and contemporary innovations, the Computer History Museum is home to the world’s most comprehensive computing collection and is the world’s foremost institution for the research, conservation, and exhibition of the one of humankind’s greatest technologies – computers.

The Museum’s re-opening marks the successful completion of a two-year, $19 million renovation that will bring to life the remarkable story of the birth, growth, and future of computing for hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. The centerpiece of the Museum’s makeover isRevolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing, a sweeping, modern exhibition designed to look at every major aspect of the extraordinary history of computing-from the abacus to the iPod, and the vital progress in between. Ten years in the making, Revolution is the product of the Museum’s professional staff collaborating with designers, content producers and more than 200 experts, pioneers and historians around the world.

History of Museum 1.0 to Museum 2.0

Since 2002, the Museum has been housed in the former Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) headquarters and executive briefing center. The project’s architectural and design changes escalate the award-winning building’s original drama by intersecting its historic use with immersive contemporary spaces that highlight the world’s largest collection of over 100,000 computing artifacts and ephemera. The Museum’s new interior design, while physically embodying CHM’s mission to serve as a vibrant historical center celebrating the spirit and history of computing and its ongoing impact on society, simultaneously increases its space for exhibitions and groundbreaking programs, including presentations by some of the world’s leading minds in computing and technology.

The roots of the Museum date from the 1960s, when Gordon and Gwen Bell-with the support of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) CEO Ken Olson-initially created an exhibit of their personal collection of computing devices in the lobby of DEC in Boston, Massachusetts. The Computer History Museum first opened to the public in 1984 under the name of The Computer Museum. Sharing exhibition space with the Children’s Museum at Museum Wharf in Boston, the Computer Museum established a history of presenting exhibitions and education programs that explored contemporary perspectives on computing culture, history, and ideas.

CHM Chairman Leonard J. Shustek, then a member of the Computer Museum board, relocated the artifact collection of the Computer Museum to California’s Silicon Valley in 1999, where it was housed at a temporary location on the grounds of the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. This temporary site will always be known as the location where the Computer History Museum was born. In 2002, CHM moved to its current, permanent home on Shoreline Boulevard in Mountain View when the Board of Trustees issued a $25 million bond to purchase the SGI headquarters building outright.

Since its rebirth in California, the Museum has expanded its mission from a solely exhibition-based focus to preservation and collecting. CHM is now home to the world’s largest collection of computing history materials, with over 100,000 artifacts, objects, and ephemera ranging from ancient calculating devices to the first Google server. It draws on the availability of existing partners and financial supporters from the vast computing sector, as well as on the creativity of curators and scholars to develop immersive exhibitions, an extensive website and the Museum’s acclaimed speaker series.

The renovated 120,000 square foot building offers 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, more than doubling the previous space allocated to CHM exhibitions, allowing the museum to greatly expand both its exhibition and programming focus. As part of the Museum’s $19 million renovation, the CHM also increased the size and technological scope of its conservation facilities and office spaces, as well as adding new education facilities and increasing the public spaces to include a 5,000 square foot lobby that houses an orientation theater, museum store and café.

CHM’s new facilities and exhibition program offer an accessible, multi-layered approach to storytelling that suits a variety of learning styles, both on-site and online. People of all generations and backgrounds will be engaged in unexpected ways when they see how devices and software they used over the years, and use today, originally came to be.

Mark Horton Architecture (MHA), the museum’s architect-of-record, is collaborating with exhibition design firm Van Sickle & Rolleri, the exhibition construction firm MAI Industries, and exhibit fabricators Exhibit Concepts Inc. The aim of the team was to produce a dynamic, contemporary design intimately connected to computing history and the museum-going experience. Capitalizing on the eccentric, angular and modern nature of the building, CHM’s renovation is resonant with the original landmark building, known as “Shoreline Gateway,” which, designed by Studios Architecture in 1993, won numerous architectural awards at its inception, and marked the first real departure from the Valley’s reflective-glass anonymity, creating a more architecturally sculptural exterior.

“The Museum is now a space that will draw together people through the filter of the worldwide computing experience,” said John C. Hollar, Museum President and Chief Executive Officer. “Our inaugural programming and exhibition schedule, the visual spectacle of our new exhibition space and main lobby, and the opening of the world’s most innovative and immersive experience of global computing history are all part of the Computer History Museum experience. CHM’s newly renovated facility-along with its expanded exhibition spaces, lecture series, and community programs-will assuredly add a new chapter to the exciting and rapidly growing history of the Information Age.”

Building Design

The Computer History Museum will act as a beacon drawing the eye to the core of Silicon Valley’s technology corridor. Presenting a natural connection between history and contemporary innovation, in a classic building recast for the modern era, the most distinctive features of the newly renovated CHM are the 25,000 square foot exhibition space, and the renovated main lobby, including a café and Museum store.

MAIN LOBBY – The main lobby, a 5,000-square-foot public space, will serve as an entry to the Museum, as well as indoor/outdoor seating area for the Museum café and a gathering space for special programs. In keeping with the Museum’s mission, the lobby floor is designed to evoke the look of an oversized computer punch card, with a pattern that is coded with a message that visitors will be invited to decode. To transition the visitor from the lobby to the exhibit space, the Museum has created an orientation theater, which sets the tone for the expansive inaugural exhibition, Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.

EXHIBITION GALLERY – The primary building design includes 25,000 square feet of exhibition space on the ground level, including entry and exit theaters. As an international center for the preservation and research of computer history, CHM will originate exhibitions, host traveling exhibitions, and collaborate with museums from around the world to present outstanding works of innovation, objects, and installations that offer fresh perspectives and invite visitors to discover new ways of understanding computing history in a contemporary world.

The 25,000-square-foot exhibition space is divided both thematically by type of computing innovation (eg, mainframes, games, mobile) and chronologically based on the date of significant innovations. A hardwood floor and curved ceiling reminiscent of an overhead wave act as a boulevard that guides the visitor through 19 galleries, each dedicated to a major theme in computer history. This exhibition gallery will allow the public the opportunity to immerse themselves in the 2,000 years history of one of the world’s most significant innovations. Offering a direct connection between the Museum’s curatorial and research roles and its role as a public institution, the expanded exhibition gallery will provide a unique view of the computing inventions and innovations that have shaped humankind’s extraordinary history over the past 2,000 years.

ORIENTATION THEATER – The Orientation Theater, which seats approximately 50 people, will be the primary entry experience for the exhibition visitor. A 10-minute movie, which explores the forces that shape invention and the impact of technology on the human experience, will create a context for the inaugural exhibition. Relying on vintage footage plus interviews with pioneers and historians, and featuring objects from the Museum’s extensive collection, the orientation movie will introduce top-level exhibition themes. Ultimately, visitors will learn that the rate of development and exponential growth of computer technology are unprecedented compared to any other human invention, discovering along the way that computer history is not only a story of machines, but a fascinating story about the people behind the creation and utilization of these machines.

NEW EDUCATION FACILITIES – The expanded museum will house new education facilities that bring together visitors in a dialogue of culture, history, and the power of ideas. Located on the second floor, the education area will house programs that explore the fundamental role that computing history plays in our everyday lives and in the Museum. The 2,500 square feet of education space includes two classrooms, allowing CHM to significantly expand its array of enriching educational programs for students, teachers, community members, families, youth, adults, and senior citizens. Available to educators by advance booking, the education facilities will feature an open resource area with an exhibition space and a relaxing atmosphere with tables, comfortable seating, vitrines to hold more computing artifacts and objects, and an array of resource materials allowing visitors to learn more about current exhibitions and other relevant topics.

AUDITORIUM – The 5,500-square-foot Hahn Auditorium with 400 seats will accommodate film/video, lectures, discussions, and CHM’s acclaimed speaker series. A new speaker series, titled “Revolutionaries,” will launch in February, 2011.

MUSEUM SHOP and CAFÉ – The Museum shop and café will be located within the main lobby. The 1,500 square foot Museum store, designed by MHA , will support the educational mission of the Museum by offering a comprehensive selection of scholarly and popular publications. The Museum shop will also have a special focus on gifts and gadgets, and an excellent collection of computing nostalgia. The shop will be accessible through the main lobby during regular Museum hours. Adjacent the museum store, the Museum café, run by Mountain View-based Modern Taste, will offer welcoming indoor seating, with additional outdoor seating on the Museum’s terrace.

Also located on the Museum’s ground floor is a 4,500-square-foot open gallery space for additional exhibitions, as well as for presentations, public programs, and private rentals.

Inaugural Exhibition & Programming

The Museum’s inaugural exhibition, Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing, tells the story of the technology, people, companies and impact of one of humankind’s greatest inventions: the computer. This immersive 25,000-square-foot exhibition covers the history of computing from the abacus to the i-Pod, and features over 1,000 objects from the Museum’s rich collection alongside an array of multi-media presentations capturing the voices of the people who made the computing revolution possible. Through historical, scientific, and cultural artifacts, ephemera, prototypes, and print material, Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing provides an engaging and dynamic forum for exploration, discussion, and debate around one of the biggest innovations of all time.

Comprised of 19 galleries, an orientation theater and an exit theater, as well as three mini- theaters and 100 individual multi-media stations, Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing, is, according to Kirsten Tashev, Computer History Museum, Vice President of Collections & Exhibitions, “a one-of-a-kind, large-scale exhibition containing a full range of immersive visitor experiences and access to the world’s largest collecting of computing history.  Each of the 19 galleries is a themed mini-exhibition that will cover a particular subject on the evolution of computing, and at center stage within each gallery is a single icon-a universally canonical object-that is the exemplar for the topic treated in the alcove.”

In addition to the museum’s world-class collection, visitors will enjoy dramatic graphics, hands-on displays, period settings, machine demonstrations, and direct interaction with the Museum’s knowledgeable docents. Among the 100 multi-media stations, visitors will hear stories from the people who pioneered the computer revolution, watch vintage footage, and explore breakthrough technological concepts through animations and hands-on exhibits.

Central to CHM’s mission is its ability to reach audiences beyond its physical space. Launching with the Museum’s re-opening is CHM’s vast cyber-exhibition, Revolution on the Internet, which is poised to become one of the world’s leading resources for research, information, and education on the history of computing. Every aspect of Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing in its physical onsite form will be executed digitally online at www.

Revolution on the Internet in its entirety is a deeply immersive, authoritative, media-rich and easily navigable experience created through the contextual placement of landmark events in computing history via timelines, interactive applications, imagery, and extensive video resources.  Additionally, research materials, digital access to the Museum’s collection, and digital versions of past exhibits not found in the current physical exhibition will be part of the new web experience. Revolution on the Internet will, over time, become the Museum’s main platform for cross-media efforts and its global history-telling projects.

Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing is organized by CHM under the direction of Kirstin Tashev, Vice President of Collections and Exhibitions. This inaugural exhibition will be the first in a series of exhibition projects that examine the contemporary relevance of computing history from a variety of scientific, historic, and cultural perspectives.

Revolution is funded by a large community of supporters. All $19 million for CHM’s renovation and the creation of Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing came from private donations to the Museum as part of a comprehensive $125 million capital campaign, which has raised $93 million since 2000.  This exhibit was made possible through the generosity of William H. Gates III, and dozens of other private donors have made supporting financial contributions.

Bill Gates to Inaugurate “Revolutionaries” Speaker series

In February 2011, Bill Gates, chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and lead benefactor of CHM’s inaugural exhibition, Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing, will inaugurate a companion speaker series to the Revolution exhibit, called “Revolutionaries,” which will feature live conversations with some of the most distinguished executives and thinkers in the computing field.

In addition to the “Revolutionaries” speaker series, held each month in the Hahn Auditorium, CHM will host a series of lectures, debates, and roundtables, allowing Bay Area residents to listen to the some of the world’s leading voices in contemporary computing history.

The museum also hosts the annual Fellows Awards. This April 30, 2011 CHM will host the 12th Annual Fellows Awards, when the “who’s who” of the technology world will assemble at the museum, for a banquet and ceremony to honor those industry leaders who have forever changed the world with their accomplishments. Past Fellows include Linus Torvalds, Ken Olsen, Gordon Moore, and Steve Wozniak.

As a measure of its commitment to the immersive museum experience, CHM hired an impressive team of architects, designers and contractors. The lead architect for renovation of the public space is the award-winning firm of Mark Horton / Architecture of San Francisco, whose other current projects include the House of Air at San Francisco’s Crissy Field. The designer of the inaugural exhibition, Revolution, is Van Sickle & Rolleri, an award-winning designer of immersive museum environments. VS&R is based in Medford, New Jersey. Exhibit Concepts, Inc., an award-winning exhibit fabricator based in Dayton, Ohio, is the lead firm constructing the physical exhibition spaces in Revolution. ECI’s recent projects include the National Museum of the Pacific War and the BB King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center. LEED-accredited MAI Industries of San Jose is the general contractor. MAI Industries collaborated closely with VS&R and ECI to execute the new interior design of the exhibition space and the Museum’s new public spaces. MAI’s related projects include technology industry leaders Yahoo, Google, and Oracle.

Monica Turner
Contributor to Stark Insider for tech, the arts and All Things West Coast for over 10 years.