The Silicon Valley Gets a Museum of its Own
But "The Tech" Needs a Stronger Sense of Place
When I was growing up in Los Angeles, the world capital of fi lmmaking was not the most hospitable place for visitors. Sure you could match your footprints with the cement imprints of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe at the Grauman's Chinese Theater, but if you wanted to see a back lot or a sound stage, you needed a friend in the industry. Until only recently, the same could be said for the world capital of computer technology: the Silicon Valley. For visitors to the area, the view is primarily one of low buildings with a scattering of famous logos--Intel, Sun, Apple, Hewlett-Packard. There are neatly trimmed lawns and vast expanses of parking lots, with all the excitement of an industrial park.
But just as the Universal City and Warner Brothers studio tours have given LA visitors an insider's look at the film industry, so has the newly expanded Tech Museum of Innovation (known informally as "The Tech") attempted to give "civilians" a hands-on look at the region with the largest concentration of technology companies in the United States.
The Tech is certainly ambitious. Founded in 1990, the museum moved into its expanded quarters last November in downtown San Jose, at the southern edge the amorphous boundaries of the Silicon Valley. Larger than San Francisco and once considered a backwater, San Jose today is flush with cash. People stream into the plush Fairmont Hotel across the street from the museum, and it's tough to book a restaurant reservation on weekdays. The museum is not a modest wallflower in this environment. With its orange (the museum prefers to call it "mango") and blue exterior, the building was designed by architect Ricardo Legorreta of Mexico City and built at a cost of $96 million. Principal funding came from the City of San Jose, plus donations from corporations and individuals. Local companies donated all the equipment, from Silicon Graphics workstations to a Seiko robot.
The museum has three levels, 112,000 square feet, and about 250 exhibits. Its staff of 140 is augmented by more than 400 volunteers. Some 650,000 visitors including about 130,000 students and teachers are expected to visit each year. In addition to an IMAX theater and the mandatory gift shop and cafeteria, The Tech's exhibition space is divided into four galleries focusing on innovation, medicine, interplanetary and oceanic exploration, and communications.
Among the exhibit highlights:
- A working digital studio with six stations that range from video capture and sound processing to editing, animation, and image manipulation.
- A chip cleanroom--the most "adult" exhibit in the museum--which shows some of the equipment found in a working microchip fabrication plant.
- An IMAX theater with an 82-foot diameter dome, its projector and massive reels of film in plain view from the ticket line behind a glass wall. Before the film starts, the theater makes a clever demonstration of its sound system, revealing the massive speakers behind the perforated aluminum screen.
- A 7,700 gallon tank in which visitors can control remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) of the kind used by the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
- A virtual bobsled, a modified version of the same simulator used by the U.
S. bobsled team.
There are numerous booths where you can stay and play. You can design a roller coaster and get critiqued by an onscreen engineer, who may tell you to decrease the size of the loops to preserve potential energy. You can "chat" online with other visitors while navigating an avatar stand-in through a virtual world. You can assemble circuits, peer through a microscope at a integrated circuit, see an ultrasound image of your hands and an infrared image of your body. Not everything succeeds. One large exhibit makes the obvious point that a satellite dish must be aligned with the satellite. The museum's banks of monitors are eye-catching, but really just visual noise. A simulated wheelchair race is fun, but not particularly instructive.
Staying relevant is a challenge
In both its hits and misses, The Tech shows the difficulty of creating a technology museum for the 21st century. Directors and exhibit designers face two principal challenges: rapid obsolescence and a savvy audience that can already tap into vast information resources from their home computer.
Obsolescence is a given. We live in an era of ever shorter product cycles, where companies strive to trump each other by the month. That means that today's cutting edge collectable is tomorrow's antique. Remember the PDP-11, CP/
"A lot of skeptical people said you'll never keep up," said Tech CEO Peter Giles in an interview with the Mercury News. "And it's true we'll never totally keep up. But with these good relationships, we have the best of what these companies make now, and as their technologies change, I'm confident they will want us to have the new things." (See
The other problem is even more daunting. In America, most middle class households now have a computer, and most of them are already hooked up to the Internet. That means the average educated American--the prime audience for the Tech Museum--can learn Java, design a house, or view pictures from the Louvre, all without leaving the house. Given the unfathomable resources already represented by a home computer, what can any technology museum present to amaze and inform its audience?
"We have a lot of things that you can't easily do on your computer at home," said Carol Plecas, the exhibit hall coordinator for the communications exhibit, which includes the world's most primitive telephone: two cans connected by a string. "For example, we've got an exhibit where you can learn to make your own Web page. We have Internet demonstrations that give people practice on how to use a search engine, and we've also got a 3D chat area which is popular with both adults and children, and includes an 'avatar' representing your presence in cyberspace. You can't do that on your home computer unless you have a Sony Playstation."
Indeed, not every visitor is as familiar with technology--or as well equipped--as the average Palo Alto High School student. Take the four engineers visiting from the IBM Java Technology Center for a team-building day, who were tinkering with a workbench exhibit that demonstrates properties of electronic sensors. "This is probably a bit beneath us," one of them admitted. "But as you can see, it takes all four of us to get the thing to work. We're software engineers--if it has moving parts, we're lost."
Missing: the heart of the Silicon Valley
CEO Peter Giles has cited two institutions that inspired The Tech's design: The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and the Ontario Science Center. "Those two models and much of what has been done in the world has guided us and moved us along with ideas. But our biggest challenge was to say, okay, what is different and unique and extraordinary about the Silicon Valley and how can we capture that in an institution that by its definition is fixed in time and space."
Unfortunately, the museum has not succeeded in truly conveying a sense of place--of what makes the Silicon Valley like nowhere else. The Tech understandably went with the glitz of a technology trade show. But in doing so, it missed the more daring approach: capturing the essence of what makes the Silicon Valley tick. I found this missing "nerd factor" the museum's biggest disappointment.
For example, I wished there were more on the creative process of innovation, on the addictive joy of programming, on the pressures of competition, and the scrambling for funding. What about an exhibit that encourages attendees to try their hand at coding, using an easy language like Logo? How about an exhibit that takes you step-by-step through the product cycle--showing how the iMac was conceived, how that conception turned into product specs, engineering drawings, and manufacturing layout; and how the final product was sold. A smart programmer could simulate this process, letting museum goers try their hand at being Steve Jobs. The Tech museum hits the right note in showing museum goers how to surf the Web. But why not an exhibit on how a browser works, or for that matter, how the Internet itself operates? What happens, for example, when you send an e-mail or access a website? And how does a transistor work, and the array of transistors that comprise an integrated circuit? How is data stored and retrieved on a hard disk; how does binary code become text and images?
Also missing is almost any fragment of history--in an industry where history is what happened a year ago. Except for a mural of a Silicon Valley garage in the cafeteria, there was no sense of how acres of fruit orchards were transformed into an economic powerhouse propelled by the invention of the silicon chip. The designers would have done well to have read an account, like Steven Levy's Hackers or Paul Freiberger's Fire in The Valley--and made some of that history come alive.
But if The Tech doesn't precisely match my conception of a Silicon Valley museum, it still succeeds on its own terms. That success seemed most evident later in the day, after the school kids had returned to their classrooms. The theme park atmosphere disappeared, replaced by the sustained seriousness of a college lab. For the most part, people seemed engrossed.
"While education is something we strive for, we determined in the middle of the process that we were more about inspiring people, that we wanted to have some drama," said Dirk Dieter, one of four exhibit designers, who was roving the floor on the day of my visit. "We knew we couldn't answer every single question about any particular technology. But we wanted to at least inspire somebody in a single visit so that they would be interested in learning more."
Tucked into the corners of the museum were a scattering of exhibits that show the darker side of technology. The museum worked with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University on some of this, with good results. One display shows how digital photographs can lie, featuring the infamous National Geographic cover in which the pyramids of Egypt were squashed together to make them more photogenic, as well a TV Guide in which talk show host Oprah Winfrey's head was grafted onto Ann-Margaret's body. There is also an exhibit on how to filter out online pornography, and another exhibit with tips on how to get rid of telemarketers.
"We want people to know it's not a perfect world out there and present both sides of the story," said Dieter. Rather than just take technology for technology sake, we wanted to question some of the things that are happening, as well and make people think."
In addition to these explicit messages about the downfalls of technology, the museum inadvertently demonstrates another fact of our technological age: things break. Just one week after the museum opened its doors to the public, several exhibits were masked with yellow "under repair" notices (together with a Dilbert cartoon). At least that aspect of the Silicon Valley was conveyed precisely.