The American Computer & Robotics Museum: Interview with Executive Director, Eleanor Barker
To collect, preserve, interpret, and display the artifacts and history of the information age.
This is the mission statement of the American Computer & Robotics Museum (ACRM) located in Bozeman, Montana. Founded by Barbara and George Keremedjiev (1952-2018) in 1990, it is the world’s oldest continually operating museum of its kind. But, it started as a passion project, which slowly evolved into a carefully curated endeavor dedicated to showcasing the milestones of human innovation in computing and communications tech. Today, according to Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, it is “inch for inch, the best museum in the world.”
It’s easy to think of computers and robotics as something novel and recent, but machines and ways to program them have existed for hundreds of years. Realizing this, the founders of ACRM wanted to show how the Age of Information progressed over the course of human history, and why the process picked up an incredible amount of momentum over the last two hundred years. Contextualizing the information in a relatable and easy to follow format, George and Barbara Keremedjiev created a very special, award-winning institution.
At the museum, visitors can see a reproduction of the Gutenberg Printing Press and two originally printed leaves from Macbeth’s first folio in 1623; they can spot the computer NASA used in the Apollo Moon Missions and get a sense of how the space program inspired many of the technologies we have today; and they can visit the robotics exhibit to explore some of Hollywood’s most famous props as well as common robotic devices that people can find in their own homes, like a Roomba. And these are just a few of the many incredible pieces found at ACRM.
Sadly, at the age of 66, George Keremedjiev passed away on November 17th, 2018. His legacy, however, is still shining bright within the walls of his beloved museum; today Barbara Keremedjiev continues to represent their mutual passion and works towards their shared goals for the institution, ensuring that her husband’s work is inspiring developing young minds and the new wave of ambitious professionals entering careers in STEM.
Now, under the executive direction of Eleanor Barker, the American Computer & Robotics Museum will continue its mission. In a written exchange with ARTpublika Magazine, Mrs. Barker opens up about what’s next for ACRM.
Where did George and Barbara’s passion for technology originate, and how did their interest grow into a museum?
George’s father worked as a technician at Philips, first working with electrical equipment and later with electronics; his knowledge and passion for the subject was a powerful influence in George’s early life.
George attended Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey, know for its focus on science and tech. While there, he had access to cutting edge equipment — like the PDP-8 — at a time when almost no one had the opportunity to interact with computer technology. Later, when George pursued engineering in college, he found that these hands-on experiences were singular, and put him way ahead of the curve relative to the other students.
Barbara herself has a strong background in science and history. When these two met, their mutual interests combined into what became a passion project for the whole family that endures to this day as the ACRM.
Back in the mid-1980s, George was on a business trip in Florida and happened to see an adding machine on display in a small antique shop. He noticed that the machine was mislabeled; the shop owner thought it was a check printer, but George correctly identified it as an early mechanical calculator. He purchased it and brought it home, all the while thinking that it was a shame that people weren’t familiar with this early technology, didn’t understand its significance, and weren’t aware of its place in the history of invention and innovation. This calculator was indeed the first piece in what grew to be a comprehensive and significant collection that forms the core of the museum today.
Can you talk about the process for curating each exhibit? How are the ideas for new exhibits generated and decided upon?
George was a consummate storyteller. For him, each new item in the collection brought with it a series of stories that he felt was important to share with museum visitors.
Who invented this technology? What was their inspiration for it? Was it filling a specific need? Did it represent a new use for an existing technology, or was it a wholly new application? What were its historical antecedents?
The ongoing, organic process of asking questions and researching the answers always led George to surprising and unexpected stories, and this singular focus on storytelling is a hallmark of our exhibits today.
What did the founders hope the visitors take away from the museum?
Human knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Everything we know or have learned flows from earlier understandings, and influences future innovation. George’s quest to understand this timeline and share it with museum visitors led him to explore innovations that stretched far back into history. Thirty years ago, when the museum first opened, a Jacquard loom from the early 1800s — the first machine to use interchangeable punch cards to direct automated tasks — was the oldest item on display. But through the years, our exhibits have reached back even earlier. Today, the oldest item on view is a 4,000-year-old Babylonian cuneiform tablet.
We commonly place the Information Age during a span of decades somewhere in the early 20th century. George’s notion that the Information Age has been developing over thousands of years, and has its origins in written language, is a unique point of view for a museum of this kind. But it is this deep grounding in history that makes our exhibits so impactful, and leads our visitors to unexpected connections, realizations, and moments of joyful inspiration.
How does this museum differ from other science museums?
We’ve talked a lot about artifacts so far, but the impact of these artifacts is made so much more meaningful by emphasizing the stories of the people who created, invented, and used them. The focus on the human stories placed within the larger historical context of technological innovation over millennia is at the core of our museum. It’s not something we’ve seen replicated in many other places.
The museum appears to have a collection of robotic heads and figures, such as the Terminator and AIBO. What function do they serve at the museum?
We love Hollywood’s depiction of robots, and it’s a source of interest, humor, and nostalgia for our visitors. These charismatic fictional robots serve as a bridge for our visitors, helping them understand the connection between software and hardware that is at the core of robotics — the practical application of computing power to perform physical labor.
Fun fact: That Terminator head was donated to our museum by the artist who created the robot for the original  movie; it’s a one-of-a-kind artifact that we’re honored to have in our collection. Of course, the Terminator is a learning machine that constantly adapts to its surroundings and adjusts its programming accordingly, probably using something similar to the ETANN neural chip, also on display in the museum. That flow of ideas between science and science fiction is a powerful thread in our robotics exhibits.
The advent of AI is further adding layers to our storytelling, and we’re at the cutting edge of communicating the issues around AI to our visitors. We held a master class for MSU students this week on the ethics of AI, and are partnering with educators and industry leaders to grow our capacity to deliver community-based education around AI and Robotics over the coming year.
George was “instrumental in creating museum studies courses” at MSU. Could you talk more about the role he played in building this curriculum?
George was committed to sharing his educational and exhibit philosophies as widely as possible. He consulted with MSU professors to help craft courses in the history of science and technology. And the museum continues to connect students with meaningful and practical experiences by offering our collection for research, serving as a host site for interns and volunteers, and linking students with luminaries in the field through our Stibitz and Wilson Award lectures and master classes.
Is it true that the museum is displaying only six percent of its available collection? Besides size, how do the curators decide which items to include? What is your favorite item not on display?
We’re inspired by artifacts in our collection that enhance our storytelling — objects that are one-of-a-kind, that have a unique or interesting provenance, or that were used by interesting people at pivotal moments in history.
Barbara loves our collection of vintage adding machines; in addition to being enormously powerful labor saving devices, they are also beautifully crafted. These machines are wonderful examples of the elevation of both form and function. A nod to Steve Jobs, who built an empire on this notion, but did not invent it.
I am currently enamored with a set of dessert plates I came across in the collection that feature famous rocket scientists, which strike me as a fascinating and unexpected confluence of history and home decor.
What’s your favorite item on display? Your favorite exhibit? And why?
Honestly, there are so many singular treasures in our museum, it’s hard to elevate just one as “the favorite.”
We have several original volumes from the Enlightenment in the museum, in our Benchmarks of the Information Age exhibit. Barbara is especially proud of the museum’s copy of Newton’s Principia Mathematica ; the museum has the third edition on display, which was the last to be produced during Newton’s lifetime. (This volume was most likely printed on a Gutenberg Press, another revolutionary technology of the Information Age.)
My father was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne during World War II, so I feel a special connection to the Enigma exhibit and the thrilling story of the Polish, British, and American code-breakers whose successful efforts may very well have changed the course of history. We’re lucky to have some original Enigma rotors on display, which are on loan from the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland.
We’ve got an original Apple I that was given to us by Steve Wozniak; a watch on loan from the Smithsonian that was worn on the moon by Commander David Scott; the very first hand-held GPS device; and, of course, a whole raft of vintage computing devices that never fail to elicit personal stories from our visitors. There’s a treasure in every room!
Were there any specific scientists that the founders revered? Any movies/ books/ TV shows that inspired them?
George was particularly in awe of [mathematician and inventor] George Stibitz (1904 — 1995), who he had the privilege to meet, and for whom our annual Stibitz awards are named. In 1937, while at Bell Labs, Stibitz built the first binary adder circuit; he called it the Model K, because he put it together at his kitchen table in his spare time. This invention, of course, forms the basis of all today’s digital computing, and we’ve got a reproduction on display that Stibitz personally built for the museum.
We freely admit to being trekkies, and give tremendous credit to Gene Roddenberry (1921 — 1991) for the wonderfully positive spin on the future of both humanity and technology that the Star Trek universe represents. And Walt Disney (1901 — 1966) deserves a shout-out as well, for his pioneering use of animatronics, which were the talk of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.
How did you get involved with the museum?
After George’s unexpected passing last winter, Barbara and her Board of Directors joined forces to reaffirm their commitment to the museum's continued success, and convened a national search for an Executive Director. I came on board in June, but have enjoyed the museum as a visitor for many years.
Previously, I had been the Executive Director at what is now the Montana Science Center (it was the Children’s Museum of Bozeman during my tenure there), where I helped establish the highly-regarded STEAMlab, a hands-on, exploratory educational program focused on coding, robotics and engineering experiences for kids in elementary and middle school. And before that, I owned and operated an art gallery on Bozeman’s Main Street for 15 years.
Barbara and I know that the ACRM delivers tremendous value to the community, and occupies an important place in the landscape of computer museums worldwide. We’re honored to have visitors from around the state and from all over the world, who seek us out for the breadth of our collection and quality of our storytelling.
Note* Image of museum sign is the curtesy of AMCR, other images are sourced from the public domain.