The 'Black Box Conundrum': How Has the Smithsonian Institution Collected and Curated Computer-Based Technology? A Study of Contemporary Collecting and Curatorial Expertise

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  • This study investigates how the curatorial staff at the history and technology museums of the Smithsonian Institution have, over the past twenty years, responded to the challenge of collecting objects that contain computer-based technology. This research illustrates how curatorial expertise can respond with agility and creativity to contemporary collecting. In doing so, the complexity of curatorial practice and collection stewardship is exposed, and the ways the museum both contributes to and is influenced by modern society's understanding of these new technologies is explored. The thesis reveals that when confronted with an unfamiliar object or type of object, curatorial staff, particularly those of the Smithsonian Institution, have the capacity to be creative in their response, in a way that is thoughtful and shared. It is suggested that the evidence presented points to a responsive, distributed and sustainable model of curatorship.
  • Furthermore it is argued that rather than a new response, this model of curatorial expertise is in fact one that has been honed by a longer tradition of technology-related collection stewardship within the Institution. Consequently, it is suggested that, going forward, the museum is well prepared to continue to answer the challenges posed by collecting and displaying not only future (perhaps unforeseen) forms of computer-based technology, but also of other types of anonymous and unprecedented objects from a rapidly evolving world.


  • Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
  • National Museum of American History (U.S.) (NMAH)
  • National Air and Space Museum


Smithsonian History Bibliography


Foti worked in collections management at the National Museum of American History prior to pursuing her Ph.D.

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Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Computers
  • Acquisitions
  • Computer software
  • Museums
  • Computer programs
  • History of science collections
  • Design
  • History of Science and Technology
  • Information science
  • Software architecture
  • History of Technology
  • Information storage and retrieval systems
  • Collectors and collecting
  • Exhibitions
  • Museum curators
  • Museum techniques
  • Museums--Acquisitions
  • Museums--Collection management
  • Museum exhibits--Design
  • Museum exhibits


United States

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Number of pages: 252; Page numbers: 1-252

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