Though case numbers continue to fluctuate, Seattle and King County have entered a post-pandemic phase where many businesses and venues have reopened to the public as COVID restrictions have eased. However, one respected institution is still keeping its doors closed.
Living Computers: Museum + Labs in the Sodo district features “the world’s largest collection of fully restored and operational supercomputers, mainframes, minicomputers and microcomputers,” with some of its holdings dating back to the 1960s and open to the public. Aside from showing these technological artifacts to the public, the museum also hosts various hands-on exhibitions and continues to promote computer education online.
Unfortunately, LCM+L’s website is currently the only working resource as the museum itself has been closed since early 2020. The website’s most recent update, published on May 28, 2020, states: “The COVID-19 crisis has had a devastating impact on many cultural organizations, particularly those that rely on public gatherings and special events to carry out their mission to fulfill. In the face of so much uncertainty, we have made the very difficult decision to temporarily suspend all operations of Living Computers: Museum + Labs.”
The museum, a pet project started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2006, stayed open for more than a year after Allen’s death in 2018. However, it remains questionable whether his business associates and family shared the late philanthropist’s interest in preserving and showcasing the museum’s historical technology.
Vulcan LLC, a conglomerate that manages the Allen family estate and many business ventures, has been run by Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, since the death. Jody Allen, herself a controversial billionaire, has backed her brother’s more prominent investments, like owning the Seattle Seahawks and Sounders. However, niche projects such as LCM+L and Belltown’s Cinerama theater (also closed indefinitely) seem less interesting to Vulcan’s new leadership.
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. According to Walton, the aviation museum is set to reopen “within a year,” according to GeekWire. However, this is still an indicator that Vulcan is attempting to offload Paul Allen’s less marketable assets to the highest bidder, and unfortunately no financial elites with esoteric interests have come to rescue the Living Computers Museum or Cinerama from their current purgatory.
Since Vulcan, a company that has proven unaccommodating in its financial affairs, has not released a statement on the status of LCM+L for years, answers have been hard to come by. But before this journalist was encouraged by the museum’s parking lot in Sodo, a security guard at the scene commented on the situation: “I think it will remain closed for a long time.”
An official request was also unsuccessful. Kyle Owsen, a software engineer who emailed the museum similar questions earlier this year, relayed LCM+L’s response to the Seattle Collegian: “Please check our website for updates. In the meantime, I wanted to share information about our online systems, which remain operational…” The Seattle Collegian also emailed the museum and received no response.
Vulcan may still be paying for security and unhelpful email replies, but without an update in over two years, the fate of the Living Computers Museum doesn’t seem promising. With wider recognition and interest, film buffs can hold onto hope that Cinerama will make a comeback, but without a Walton-like intervention, computer nerds may have to accept the loss of a local highlight at the LCM+L.
When the museum closes for good, its artifacts not sold privately may be doomed to a dusty vault; less operational and remote from the public eye. It would be a loss not only of an entertaining, educational exhibition, but also of a future opportunity to observe the historical significance of the devices within the museum’s walls; especially in a city riding a tech boom tidal wave launched by Paul Allen and Bill Gates. And it’s not like Vulcan, which is worth tens of billions, doesn’t have the cash to spare.