By Jack Stubbs
“We’re the only computer museum in the world that is exclusively dedicated to operating computers from all eras. Other computer museums generally display their computers behind glass as a historical object…our mission was to restore the computers and make them available and accessible to the public,” said Lath Carlson, executive director of the Living Computers: Museum + Labs.
Technology is increasingly changing the way we interact with the world around us on a daily basis, but the Living Computers Museum (LCM) in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood is taking this idea one step further. Originally used as a museum to showcase Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s historical computer collection, the space now provides visitors with a hands-on experience with computer technology from the 1960s to the present day, allowing them to interact with fully restored and usable supercomputers, mainframes, minicomputers and microcomputers.
The primary mission of the LCM is to maintain and renovate computer systems of historical importance. Visitors’ interaction with and proximity to the technological artifacts is one of the main features of the museum, according to Carlson. “The museum is about directly experiencing computer technology. The majority of the building is dedicated to the restoration of computers…and we try to do that restoration work in public view,” he said.
In addition to learning about computer technology and restoration, visitors can participate in a variety of different activities within the museum, including computer science learning labs and classes taught by engineers. The main gallery on the first floor explores modern technology, offering visitors direct experience with robotics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, among other featured installations, while the second floor houses a vintage collection where visitors can explore the history of computing by examining different models.
Just as renovation is a key element of the computer exhibits, the space for the museum was also a renovation project, which was undertaken by Seattle-based architectural and design firm Tiscareno Associates. As the mission of the museum evolved, the public areas needed to grow to accommodate the expanding computer collection. One of the main challenges of renovating the current home of the museum—an old industrial building—was creating enough space and infrastructure for the computers themselves, according to Carlson. “Tiscareno was already familiar with the building and some of its unique constraints…these large mainframe supercomputers require a lot of power to run,” he said.
The industrial building was chosen primarily because it supported the requirements of the older and bulkier mainframe computers. Tiscareno was tasked with creating display spaces for the vintage computer components—which required various structural accommodations, such as raised floors for wiring and plenty of cooling mechanisms for the older machines. Additionally, the new space had to be more flexible and versatile in order to accommodate up to eight interactive rotating exhibits, which range from 3D printing to robots to self-driving cars. The renovation project required a flexible design that would allow for dynamic and changeable exhibits, moveable partitions, quicker installations and more effective exhibit curations. Other architectural features include an LED track-lighting system—where exhibit lighting is controllable through an app—and special acoustic treatment for the ceilings.
Tiscareno’s role in the renovation project was solidified when the LCM was designated as a more publicly-oriented location. “Tiscareno became involved when the decision was made to make [the museum] more of a public-facing institution,” Carlson said. This design strategy reflected the architect’s mission of making the museum more accessible to the public, with 5-6 events held at the museum each week, according to Carlson. “We knew that we wanted a space that was well-suited for public events and programs. We’re constantly dealing with a lot of tech-oriented subject matter, so we wanted more conversations to happen about that,” he said.
As well as making the museum and its exhibits more accessible to the greater public, one of the challenges involved in the renovation project was transforming the formerly industrial-focused space to fit the neighborhood context of SODO. “[The project] was a challenge, because it was an industrially-zoned neighborhood, with the Port of Seattle directly behind the museum—this isn’t a neighborhood with many other museums in it, so there were some challenges for planning around that from a zoning and use perspective,” Carlson added.
Tiscareno had a particular respect for the historic legacy of the neighborhood, which contrasts with a more traditional museum district. From an architectural perspective, recognition of the site’s industrial character played a key role, according to Carlson. “A lot of the motivation was [about] embracing the industrial character of the space. We put a lot of work into exposing the original concrete, grinding the concrete floors and bringing it back to its original form,” he said.
Architectural firms bring a specific perspective when it comes to redevelopment projects like the LCM—one of the main preoccupations with the project was how to integrate it into the surrounding environment, according to Bob Tiscareno, architect and design principal at Tiscareno Associates. “From an urban design and community perspective, architecture is about making sure that the project connects with the community and that certain elements of the building are preserved.” The physical location of the museum—and its emphasis on technology—is conducive to the neighborhood fabric. “The site is a real destination for a specific community of people who are interested in technology, computers and its origins. It’s about drawing people into the SODO district who might not have visited for a long time,” Tiscareno added.
Over a period of roughly 12 months, several meetings were held to determine how the space would best fit the needs of the museum—and collaboration played a key role throughout. “Because of the incredibly accelerated timeline of the project, collaboration was essential. We did this entire project in roughly 12 months, including installations and improvements [throughout the space],” Carlson said. And although the members from the Living Computer Museum and Tiscareno Associates had a long-term vision for the project, several challenges had to be negotiated. “We knew where we wanted to end up, but a lot of the conversations were about the limitations and what we could actually do. We had a fairly fixed restrictive budget, so was a matter of understanding all the constraints and making the best decisions,” Carlson added.
The LCM does away with some of the more traditional museum elements, such as manual curation and installations and longer renovation times, among other things. Ultimately, though, the response of the public and community to the museum is dependent on broader demographic trends in the museum industry. “From a design perspective, it has to do with what we did to promote inclusion of diverse audiences in the museum. Historically, the demographic of museums have not been particularly diverse, and overall, museum visitor-ship across the country has started to decline,” Carlson said. A museum’s reputation often depends on specific design elements and subsequently how these are perceived in the public eye. “A lot of this has to do with how museums present themselves to the public—everything from where the building is, what it looks like, how easy it is to find the entryway and how welcoming the space feels,” Carlson added.
Ultimately, the LCM provides a contemporary intersection of technology and art, with technological artifacts displayed in a museum-like setting. However, Carlson believes that these two fields are one and the same. “From an anthropological perspective…I take the longer-view. Computers are just another tool in the tool-kit. When you think about producing art, all art is produced with tools of some kind,” he said.