Although case counts continue to fluctuate, Seattle and King County have entered a post-pandemic phase, with many businesses and places reopening to the public as COVID restrictions ease. A well-regarded institution, however, still keeps its doors closed.
Living Computers: Museum + Labs, located in the Sodo neighborhood, features “the world’s largest collection of fully restored and serviceable supercomputers, mainframes, minicomputers and microcomputers”, with some of their inventory dating back to the 1960s and available for public use. In addition to displaying these technological artifacts to the public, the museum also hosts various interactive exhibits and continues to promote online computer education.
Unfortunately, the LCM+L website is currently its only functioning resource, as the museum itself has been closed since early 2020. The latest website update, released on May 28, 2020, states: “The COVID crisis -19 has had a devastating effect on many cultural organizations, especially those that rely on public gatherings and special events to achieve their mission. Given so much uncertainty, we have made the very difficult decision to suspend all operations of Living Computers: Museum + Labs at this time.
The museum, a pet project started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2006, remained open for more than a year after Allen’s death in 2018. But it remains unclear whether his associates and his family share the late philanthropist’s interest in conservation. and showcasing the museum’s historic technology.
Vulcan LLC, a conglomerate that manages the Allen family estate and numerous business ventures, has been under the management of Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, since her death. A controversial billionaire in his own right, Jody Allen has backed his brother’s biggest investments, like ownership of the Seattle Seahawks and Sounders. However, more niche projects like LCM+L and the Cinerama theater in Belltown (also closed indefinitely) seem to be of less interest to Vulcan’s new senior management.
Look no further for an example than the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, which Vulcan officially sold in August. The buyer was Steuart Walton, whose grandfather founded Walmart. To Walton’s credit, the aviation museum is set to reopen “within a year,” according to GeekWire. However, it still indicates that Vulcan is looking to sell Paul Allen’s least marketable assets to the highest bidder, and sadly, no financial elite with esoteric interests has come to save the Living Computers Museum or Cinerama from their current purgatorial places.
Given that Vulcan, a company that has proven to be tight-lipped about its financial affairs, hasn’t released a statement on LCM+L’s status in years, answers are hard to come by. But before encouraging this journalist to leave the parking lot of the museum in Sodo, a security guard on site gave his opinion on the situation: “I think it will be closed for a long time.”
The more official investigation also failed. Kyle Owsen, a software engineer who emailed the museum earlier this year with similar questions, provided the Seattle Collegian with LCM+L’s response: “Please check our website for updates. In the meantime, I wanted to share information regarding our online systems which continue to operate…” The Seattle Collegian also emailed the museum and received no response.
Vulcan may still be paying for security and unnecessary email responses, but without an update for over two years, the fate of the Living Computers Museum doesn’t look bright. Given wider recognition and interest, moviegoers may remain hopeful that the Cinerama might make a comeback, but barring some Walton-like intervention, computer nerds may have to come to terms with the loss. of a local highlight in the LCM+L.
If the museum closes for good, its artifacts that aren’t sold privately could very well be condemned to a dusty vault; less operational and away from the public eye. It would be a loss not only of a fun and educational exhibit, but also of a future opportunity to observe the historical significance of the devices within the walls of the museum; especially in a city riding a tidal wave of technology that Paul Allen and Bill Gates set in motion. And it’s not like Vulcan, which is worth tens of billions, has no money to spare.