Ask what’s in the American history collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and most people will mention really old stuff like The Star-Spangled Banner or a few chunks of Plymouth Rock or musty, rusty relics of bygone eras—the John Bull Locomotive, the original Teddy Bear, or Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers. And indeed, the National Museum of American History has these things—3.3 million of them, in fact.
But the venerable institution also collects a surprising amount of stuff that looks like what you’d see in the recycling dumpster at your local Best Buy—smartphones, circuit boards and digital detritus of every description. Only, these things aren’t junk at all; they’re recently acquired artifacts that document the digital age. (You can see 12 examples below of some of the tech gadgets the Smithsonian has and find out why it’s worth keeping them.)
“One thing we’ve learned is that the public is increasingly interested in things that go up to near-present,” said David K. Allison, associate director of the museum’s curatorial affairs office. “It allows people to see history in perspective.”
With 42 million tons of electronics tossed out globally each year, another 497 million mobile devices purchased new, and the data we all generate expected to hit 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020, there are a lot of digital doodads out there for the taking. So, how does the Smithsonian decide what’s worth collecting and keeping as part of the national heritage?
“When we collect a [digital] object, we’re looking for something that’s interesting or part of an important event,” Allison said. “But we like a personal story if there is one.”
For example, while the Smithsonian wanted to have an early example of a Bloomberg terminal, the financial-information system that became indispensable on Wall Street, it jumped at the chance to acquire a keyboard belonging to bond wizard Bill Gross. The Smithsonian probably could have had whatever it wanted from the pile of junk from the early days of Google, too, but Allison beams over the museum’s having obtained (as a loaner) one of the company’s 30 original server racks that Larry Page and Sergey Brin built by hand not long after meeting at Stanford.
Unlike the objects themselves, collecting doesn’t follow an algorithm. “It’s not a science; it’s an art,” Allison said. “We’re always looking for things that are significant historically that also have an important provenance.”
Today, the Smithsonian’s tech gadgets are spread out across several collections within the American history museum—most notably, American Enterprise, a business and commerce exhibition that opens this summer. But each represents a singular moment of the digital age and frequently the singular individuals behind those moments.
While it’s nice to amass these items solely for posterity, contemplating outdated gadgetry holds real value for today’s entrepreneurs, according to marketing guru and best-selling author Seth Godin.
“While it’s important for future generations [to see these items], it’s really important for us,” he said. “Because, in a world where yesterday is already obsolete, it’s nice to pause for a moment and look at what’s zooming by. We can remember it—and learn from it.”
Avi Rubin, who teaches computer science at Johns Hopkins University, says that even outdated prototypes still have lessons to teach. “Future generations will benefit greatly from studying every important step in the progress of technology,” he said. “We need to study the blueprints, the scaffolding, the construction and the mistakes—not just the final building.”
Ultimately, said James G. Brooks, CEO of social-digital platform GlassView, yesterday’s gadgetry should be preserved because, viewed together, the items are real, physical proof of a digital revolution everyone has come to regard so casually.
“The Smithsonian was created at the tail end of the industrial revolution, which changed how people worked, traveled and got their news, and it created a world of entrepreneurs,” Brooks said. “I don’t think we’re in a dissimilar period now. Much in the way the Smithsonian took the initiative to save the cotton gin and the telegraph and the sewing machine, it’s acutely important for them to do the same with the technology causing global change right now.”