Chips & Changes

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Wendy Pollock

Published on May 30, 2007, Modified on June 07, 2007

  • Description and goals

    “Over the past decade” (we wrote in 1984), “videograms and robots, word processors and sonograms have entered into our daily vocabulary and provided the basis for countless news stories. All result from a technological achievement of major dimensions: the ability to etch computer circuitry onto tiny silicon chips.” This exhibition showed how chips were made; introduced applications of microelectronic technology in home, school, and factory; and examined social implications.

    The project goals, as described to the National Endowment for the Humanities (which provided a planning grant): To alert visitors to alterations in patterns of thought, work, and play that are taking place as small, cheap data processors become widely available; and to enable visitors to interpret these changes with historical insight, intellectual and emotional clarity, and imagination, so that they may make informed judgments about microprocessors in our future.

    More specifically, the intention was for visitors to walk away with…

    • Perspective on microelectronics as one of many technologies that have altered social life
    • Knowledge of the physical composition and tremendous rate of development of microprocessors
    • Knowledge of the functional capabilities of microprocessors
    • Intuitive grasp of the differences between computational power and human thought processes
    • Knowledge of current microprocessor applications in daily life, how they may develop in the next decade, and the social patterns that may change accordingly
    • Consideration of trade-offs – what is lost and what is gained as microprocessor use grows.

    A review in “History News” (August 1985) called the exhibition “a major educational experience.”

  • Development process and challenges

    At the time, ASTC on occasion undertook development of interactive exhibitions on cutting-edge topics, on behalf of the science center field. Chips & Changes (originally, Computer in Your Pocket), one of these projects, was led by Sheila Grinell, then head of the ASTC Traveling Exhibition Service. A committee with expertise in the history of technology and the humanities advised. Members included: Bernard Barber, Barnard College; I. Bernard Cohen, Harvard University; Alan Friedman, Lawrence Hall of Science; Samuel Gorovitz, University of Maryland; Rob Kling, University of California, Irvine; Melvin Kranzberg, Georgia Institute of Technology; Ted Myer, GTE Telenet Communications Corporation; Walter Reitman, Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Inc.; and William M. Sudduth, North Carolina Museum of Life and Science.

    Design and fabrication was by Rogow & Bernstein, then based in Los Angeles. The exhibition opened at the Exploratorium, and adjustments took place on the spot.

    The exhibition included more than 40 different kinds of computerized devices. But the ASTC office had only a typewriter (at least it was an electric), so producing and updating a technical manual was a messy and cumbersome business. Without email or even fax, communication with our West Coast designers and fabricators and, later, with host museums, was a challenge. We spent a lot of time on the telephone.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    Packaging, shipping, and maintaining all of those working computerized devices was new terrain. We learned quickly….

    • It’s easier to accept donated equipment than to maintain it (when Atari stopped selling videogames, we bought the remaining supply at a Toys R Us so we’d have back-ups).

    • Off-the-shelf, consumer-grade devices may not hold up under science center use.

    • Sturdy wooden crates, while standard for artwork and artifacts, might not be the best solution for packaging science center exhibits, with their mix of heavy kiosks and equipment needing specialized packaging.

    • A thorough manual isn’t the same as a usable manual.

    • Some exhibitions need a skilled technician to help with set-up and staff orientation.

    • There should be a really good reason to include a large number of specialized devices in an exhibition.

    At the end of its tour, the exhibition was sold to the St. Louis Science Center.

  • Exhibition Opened: March 1984

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: Washington, DC, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $500,000 to $1,000,000 (US)

  • Size: 3,000 to 5,000

  • Other funding source(s): National Endowment for the Humanities, Intel Corporation, Digital Equipment Corporation, and many in-kind contributors

Latest Comments (1)


by Jim Spadaccini - June 07, 2007

I wonder if the St. Louis Science Center has any of those Atari’s left. They are fairly collectable now.

I just saw Start-Up at the Natural History Museum in Albuquerque, which covers some of the same information—just 22 years later!

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