Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Living Computers Museum finally isn't

First off, apologies for a quiet month as I've been dealing with family matters which hopefully are now on a better footing (more articles are in the hopper). Unfortunately, the same apparently can't be said for the once-great Living Computers Museum + Labs in Seattle, established by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and closed in 2020 during the COVID pandemic after his death, at least some of which is going up for auction. The specific pieces have not yet been announced by Christie's, but will ostensibly include his personal DECsystem-10, a 1971 KI10 DEC PDP-10 from the MIT AI Lab which is the first computer he and Bill Gates ever used. (There's just something about your first. I still have my actual first computer too, and with only around 1500 systems built the unit at the LCM was apparently the exact machine they used also. Here's a picture of it from when it was in residence at the LCM and used to develop a replica.)

Obviously, while I think it's a crying shame, the estate can do what it likes with its own stuff and I hope the machine, plus the other 149 pieces reportedly to be auctioned off, goes to someone who appreciates it. (Bill Gates himself perhaps.) What's more problematic is the people who donated systems and peripherals with the expectation they would remain there in some capacity, especially since the museum reportedly didn't accept items as long-term loans. (Wikipedia has a substantially complete list of those items.) That's not per se an unreasonable position, and one that helps protect the museum, but it's also one that leaves their prior owners with no firm recourse for recovery before they get liquidated or scrapped in a situation like this. Throwing them away is bad enough but if those items also go up for sale, though doing so may be technically legal depending on how the transfer was written up, it's pretty darn sleazy. Allen's estate, notably his sister Jody who is the trustee and executrix, would then be profiting off items donated in good faith on the understanding that they would be in a museum. That's bad and they should feel bad.

But then perhaps museums aren't what they used to be. On cctalk someone mentioned the now defunct? National Museum of Communications in Irving, TX which downsized in 1998 by taking about five commercial dumpsters' worth of radios and other items to the dump. It looks like one guy ran that shop and it probably became too large for him to handle, a story which is probably more common than most of us know, though it's still bad news for the equipment that got junked — some of which was almost certainly rare or irreplaceable, even if specific items themselves weren't particularly valuable. Every collector has had well-intentioned dreams at one time or another of opening our own museums, not realizing that they turn into massive sinks of time and money and regulatory filings, and they're never as much fun to operate as the private computer room or display case you used to have in your house. Situations like this should also remind us that donating our own beloved items to any institution in the hopes they'll "survive" us is no guarantee they'll remain there either.

We're amateurs, though. Paul Allen, on the other hand, was not an amateur and was an incredibly wealthy man who had to have some awareness of estate planning, and one who knew his cancer was likely to return. It is widely reputed that the LCM was expensive to run and hard to manage even with his sizeable fortune and a lot of diligent volunteers. Now his collection and quite a few artifacts I imagine some folks would like back are in the hands of his sister, who allegedly doesn't have any interest in them other than the price they might fetch. Let that be a lesson to us that no one and nothing lives forever.

1 comment:

  1. I visited the Living Computer Museum anytime I was in Seattle, and I am also a member of SDF. You will likely be interested in and possibly even want to help support the Interim Computer Museum. https://icm.museum/ This is a project of SDF to preserve what it can.

    Not sure if I can do two links in one comment but they mention SDF towards the end of this story. https://www.geekwire.com/2024/seattles-living-computers-museum-logs-off-for-good-as-paul-allen-estate-will-auction-vintage-items/ Is a nice write up


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