Yesterday the annual Museums on a Summer Night took place. It's a day when most museums in Slovenia remain open until late night hours and host special exhibitions and events all day long. It also marks the beginning of the week when Cyberpipe's Computer Museum is closing down most of its activities until some undetermined future date. There will be one last party this Thursday.
The museum rose up from a pile of old hardware that was donated to hacker space Kiberpipa. The original idea of hardware donations was that old PCs could be recycled as X terminals, light-weight Linux boxes or material for some arts project. However often truly archaic pieces would find their place among dusty 486s and first generation Pentiums. In one instance I recall finding a Sinclair QL in the inbox labeled as a broken PC keyboard. It turned out there was substantial historic treasure in people's attics and cellars and most of it was going into the dump. This was most appalling with rare, locally designed hardware for which few other traces existed.
Over the years as the news of the computer museum spread the donations became more intentional as well. Enthusiasts offered contributions from their private collections and companies replacing aging hardware began calling in. The first improvised exhibits on borrowed tables were replaced by proper museum displays and glass cases. The permanent collection was joined by temporary exhibitions, special events like the No-LAN parties. The museum gained international recognition on events like the Vintage Computer Festival Europe.
I worked with the museum right from the start, as a volunteer, like everyone else on the staff. Albeit without much recognition - you can't find me for instance on any of the official contributors photos displayed prominently in front of the exhibition. A lot of the posts about historic computer hardware on this blog were born out of broken exhibits I repaired. And of course the idea for the CMOS Galaksija replica came out of the work at the computer museum.
I believe preserving our computer history is as important as preserving other technical heritage. For one it's fragile and it appears to be quickly disappearing which makes repeating old mistakes that much more probable. And also because only through our work at the museum we came to realize that our little corner of the world used to be at the forefront of computer technology. For a brief moment before the harsh international trade regulations that gave rise to it also caused its decline computers from our industry were on par with everything coming out of silicon valley. And I think that is a discovery worth sharing.
While intent on sharing knowledge, Hacker organizations like Kiberpipa work on an ad-hoc and spur-of-the-moment mentality and this clashes with sometimes meticulous care for the fragile exhibits. Plus they can probably house 10 intermedia artists in the space occupied by a single S/390 CPU unit. So I can understand the friction between the museum and its mother organization that finally caused the closure of its activities.
What I can't understand is how it seems that apart from a few enthusiasts there seems to be no serious interest from the professional community to preserve this piece national history. And it's not just the Cyberpipe's museum. The largest computer magazine in Slovenia used to gather old computers with the intent of opening a museum of their own. To my knowledge the whole collection newer say the light of day. They ended up donating everything to Kiberpipa last year. The national Technical Museum has problems of its own and doesn't even dare think about taking over a new collection like this.
Is it really impossible to have a sustainable source of funding for a project like this, even when it seems there are people willing to donate equipment and their time for the cause? If so, how come there's a thriving grass-roots computer museum in Reka, just across the southern border?