Collecting Software: Preserving Information in an Object-Centred Culture
Museums are part of an object-centred culture. Their essential justification is the acquisition, preservation and interpretation of physical artefacts. Physical objects, their meaning, significance and their care, dominate a curator’s professional psyche. One of the first tasks, then, is to locate computer software in the artefactual landscape. Computer hardware, as a category of object, is seemingly unproblematic. It is the physical stuff of computer systems and falls painlessly into the custodial universe of conventional object-centred curatorship. Curators acquiring monitors, keyboards, systems boxes, disk drives and printers would be seen as going about their normal business in an unremarkable way. Software, a term in general use by the early 1960s, is usually defined negatively—that is to say, a component of computer systems distinct from hardware. The Oxford Dictionary of Computing 2 defines software as “a generic term for those components of a computer system that are intangible rather than physical”. Prentice Hall’s Illustrated Dictionary of Computing” irreversibly severs the material link by noting that “software is independent of the carrier used for transport”. The non-material features of software have ominous implications. The Science Museum’s Corporate Plan for 1992–74 states that one of the Museum’s core objectives is to “acquire the most significant objects as physical evidence of science worldwide”. Here physical objects are explicitly identified as the evidentiary medium. We have a prima facie conflict.
KeywordsSteam Brittle Assure Expense Germanium
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- 1.This paper is an edited version of a book chapter: “Preserving Software in an Object-Centred Culture,” in History and Electronic Artefacts, ed. Edward Higgs (Oxford, 1998), 195–206. Acknowledgements: Illustrations (Pegasus computer, two simulation screens) are reproduced with the permission of the Science Museum.Google Scholar
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