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News / Life / Science & Technology

Paul Allen’s Living Computers: Museum + Labs will close permanently

By Kate Perez, The Seattle Times
Published: July 7, 2024, 6:00am

SEATTLE — While most museums protect their collections under glass, the vintage computers and other electronic artifacts at the Living Computers: Museum + Labs were open for guests to play, code and educate themselves.

Last week, it was confirmed the South Seattle museum that housed Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s collection of vintage computers and internet technology will close permanently, and at least some of its items will head to auction.

The museum had shut it doors in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and never reopened.

Located in an industrial-looking beige building on First Avenue South, the museum first opened in 2012 and was known for its hands-on displays. Allen, an avid collector and philanthropist whose life’s work also led to the creation or support of Seattle institutions like the Museum of Pop Culture and Cinerama, died in 2018 from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He had announced in 2010 his intention to donate the majority of his wealth by signing the Giving Pledge, and parts of his estate have been auctioned off since then.

Rich Alderson, a former senior engineer at the museum, worked closely with Allen and took care of his private collection of computers and mainframe systems at Allen’s company, Vulcan.

Alderson was one of the first people on the project that eventually became the museum. Before the museum existed, Allen had a website called PDPplanet.com that chronicled his collection of Digital Equipment Corporation mainframes and minicomputers. Allen approached Alderson and his co-workers and asked if they thought people would come to a physical museum of the collection.

“We started exploring that question, and in 2008 we renamed the website to livingcomputers.org and began the process of turning his private collection into something that could be shown in a museum, that people could come in and touch and use,” Alderson said.

The museum opened in October 2012, with tables of vintage computers ready to be interacted with, and continued to develop over the next eight years.

In 2016 the museum added a second floor focused on newer technology, including virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics and computer-generated art and music. The museum also added educational labs as well as temporary exhibits.

Margaret Middleton, an exhibit designer, created one of these experiences in 2017 for the museum. Their temporary exhibit, “Barbie Gets With the Program,” told a story about women in computing from the 1960s to today using toy computers designed for Barbie dolls and the real machines on which they were based.

Middleton wrote in an email to The Seattle Times that the archive was a celebration of femininity, women and computer engineering, and that the Living Computers: Museum + Labs honored that vision.

“LCM remains the only museum client I’ve worked for that not only allowed but encouraged visitors to use the collection objects, a real show of trust in museum visitors that communicated that the collection really was for them,” Middleton wrote. “I’m sad to see the museum close — it was such an inspiring model.”

Alderson shares similar feelings about the closure. He continued to work at the museum until 2020, when it closed due to the pandemic. Alderson said the institution originally had plans to open back up at a later date, but that did not happen.

“As of June 1, 2020, all of us engineers, other than the engineering manager, were laid off. The archivist stayed on for about another year, just completing documentation and such, and then she was let go,” Alderson said.

The museum workers were originally told to plan for a 12- to 18-month shutdown, which Alderson thought would turn into a two- to three-year shutdown.

“What’s heartbreaking is the fact that the museum is never going to reopen,” he said.

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It’s not yet clear how many or which of the museum’s items will be auctioned off. But one piece of vintage computing equipment that’s confirmed to be for sale is the museum’s DEC PDP-10: KI-10 computer from 1971 — a type of computer that Allen and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates perfected their programming skills on.

Alderson recalled working together with Allen and late engineering manager Robert Michaels on that computer at the museum space before it officially opened.

“Paul used to just show up sometimes, because he could. He showed up at 5 o’clock one evening as I was debugging things, and came over and sat down, and the three of us sat there till about 9 o’clock,” Alderson said. “He ordered in pizza, and we just had a great time debugging.”

Alderson said he was unsure how Allen would feel about the museum’s closure.

“It was always one of his happy places,” Alderson said. “It’s hard to say how he would react.”

Auction to come

There are three upcoming Christie’s Americas auctions of items from Allen’s estate, ranging from computing equipment to historical documents. According to a news release, the auctions will take place this fall and focus on different topics:

  • Firsts: The History of Computing, an online sale closing Sep. 12
  • Pushing Boundaries: Ingenuity, a live auction on Sep. 10
  • Over the Horizon: Art of the Future, an online sale closing Sep. 12.

Included in the auctions are items that highlight Allen’s interests in technology, space exploration and art, like a signed letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Gemini spacesuit belonging to Ed White, and Chesley Bonestell’s painting, “Saturn as Seen from Titan.”

Christie’s auction house has handled past auctions of Allen’s items, including a 2022 auction that was the world’s most successful single-owner fine art auction ever, raising $1.62 billion.

Marc Porter, chairperson of Christie’s Americas, said in an interview with The Times that auctions like these allow people a glimpse into a public figure’s minds through their belongings, while also honoring their wishes after death, like Allen’s philanthropic efforts.

“So many of the auctions we present are philanthropic in nature, and those are some of our best sales,” Porter said. “Honoring the legacy of the collectors and collections that come to us is what we love to do, and I think what we do best.”

When asked about the decision to close the museum and the future of its items, a representative of the Vale Group, Allen’s company formerly known as Vulcan, wrote in a statement to The Times that auctioning off parts of Allen’s estate honors the founder’s wishes after death.

“Paul made plans for things to change after his death and, as we’ve said before, Paul committed the vast majority of his wealth to philanthropy,” the statement said. “All estate administration efforts — including the Gen One auction from which estate proceeds will be dedicated to philanthropy — are in accordance with Paul’s wishes, his estate plan, and fiduciary principles.”

The statement did not specify which charities the proceeds will go to.

According to the Vale Group, some of the museum’s programs have been acquired by the nonprofit organization SDF.org, namely the museum’s remote vintage emulated systems. The emulated systems are models of vintage computers and operation systems that let the user run past programs as if their device was the machine itself.

Christie’s website currently only lists four items in its preview for the auctions, and a full catalog has not been announced. A link on the Christie’s website allows sign-ups for email updates.

It is unknown what will happen to the other items from the museum, including objects and devices that were previously donated.

In an email to The Times, Gordon Steemson, a member of the Seattle Retro-Computing Society, wrote that other members are troubled about the future of their donated items and are unsure if they will be auctioned off, resulting in people trying to contact the museum since the announcement last week.

“At least one of our members is trying to get his donated item back for that very reason — no reply from the board yet, but it’s only been a short time.” Steemson wrote.