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Museums on the Computer

One of the relatively good things about NFTs is that it introduced me to the idea of museums on the computer.

With the rise of NFTs, there were a few projects where people took their NFTs and placed them in a digital landscape similar to a museum. For example, you could buy different NFTs from various vendors, put them in a Unity map, and import that into a game accessible via a browser or a third-party platform like VRChat. I don’t know if any of these projects were successful or got off the ground, but it was an interesting idea.

Once this idea was in my head, I became curious about other formats of museums on the computer that are unrelated to NFTs. As I delved into it, I realized that there are several sites that can be considered “museums on the internet”. Some of them are quite literally described as museums on the internet, similar to those NFT museums. But some of them are also just websites that could be construed as having the same fundamental idea as a normal museum.

The first example is the Computer History Museum. Now, the CHM is a real, physical museum in Mountain View, California. But it also has many online-only exhibits. There’s a whole section on their website dedicated to what they call “source code exhibits”, for example. These source code exhibits only make sense if you’re browsing remotely, since you can download the source code and look into it in detail, for software like the Apple II DOS or DeluxePaint.

Another example is the Web Design Museum. This is another thing where it doesn’t make sense to have it physically. It goes through the major moments in web design history, whether it be Photoshop 1.0, Yahoo, Google, or the original It catalogs a lot of that old web design theory. But of course, in the end, it is a museum on the computer, where you can look at these exhibits. They explain what the exhibits are, and they literally call them exhibitions and galleries, just like a real museum.

As we spread our wings, we realize that there are a lot of websites that could be considered museums, but might not necessarily be calling themselves museums. Probably the biggest example of this is Google Arts and Culture. It is essentially a place where you can look at a bunch of old scanned paintings, photographs, and sculptures, making it quite literally an art museum on the computer. In fact, back during the age of the 2020 COVID lockdown, people were using this very site as an alternative to visit a real art museum. Quite museum-like, if you’d ask me!

Another interesting idea is a decentralized museum, like, which specializes in cataloging the old history of computers, software, and the web. It doesn’t necessarily shroud each site like an exhibit, or explain each site’s history, but it catalogs the history itself. It’s more of a vault, but there are also a lot of other segments of that could be considered more museum-like. For example, there are sections dedicated to old shareware games or old art books, and the people who post them onto will often explain the history of that shareware game or that art book.

All these websites are, of course, free. So it really gives credence to the idea of a free museum, a free alternative where you can get (relatively) the same experience. And what I find particularly interesting is that you can really apply this to any site if you have the right design philosophy. For example, let’s take a classical museum, like a science museum. The idea behind a science museum is that you take scientific concepts and build hands-on exhibits to teach those concepts intuitively. You can do similar things with a website, where a website simulates certain scientific concepts and then one plays with it in a hands-on way. You could categorize a website like that as a museum, and certainly, there are a lot of websites that do simulations just like that.

I wanted to talk about this for a while now, ever since the NFT thing really, because there was even a time when I was seriously considering buying NFTs to create such a museum. It was a very short time, but there were a couple of NFT creators (whom I think are genuinely aesthetically good) that I was going to buy some of their works and put them into a personal 3D virtual museum, similar to this idea. But of course, NFTs got relegated to the broom closet, and my interest waned with it. That being said, this idea always stuck with me, and I may one day come back to the idea of a museum on the computer. I just don’t know exactly what that might look like.

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