The Living Computers: Museum + Labs is built around important pieces and time periods as they relate to the history of computing. But with a new exhibit opening this week, the Seattle institution is tapping into the nostalgia and joy that came with what was arguably one of the greatest decades for pop culture
Yes, it’s official: if you grew up in the 1980s, your childhood is history.
“Totally 80s Rewind” opens to the public this Thursday at the museum, located south of downtown Seattle. The exhibit will feature three separate rooms as they would have appeared in a typical American setting in the 1980s.
The immersive experience doesn’t have an introduction explaining what it is, or any artifact labels attached to the walls throughout. Physically constructed in a corner of the museum’s first floor, the exhibit just is, and visitors are encouraged to spend as much time as they like becoming part of it. Like other exhibits at the unique Seattle institution, all of the technology works and can be used by visitors.
“It’s like a diorama that’s life-size that you walk into,” said Aaron Alcorn, curator at the museum, created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. “It isn’t just about hardware, it’s about people using things. With that comes all these memories through use.”
“80s Rewind” begins in a high school classroom, set in Middletown, Ohio, as a nod to the sci-fi book and upcoming film “Ready Player One.” Desks are set up with Apple IIe computers, and a BASIC programming lesson is being taught via an overhead projector.
Alcorn and the team relied on a fictional teen character, named Alex, to guide the creation of the experience from start to finish. Alex’s desk, for instance, is in the back of the class, and the computer there will show that she’s not following along with the lesson because she’s very smart and ahead of everyone else. Her backpack hangs on a plastic chair, and inside it is a Sony Walkman, complete with a mix tape featuring music of The Cure.
The lesson is being “taught” by the father of Karen Corsica, a project manager at the museum who helped with the exhibit. Jim Corsica, of Naples, Fla., was also Karen’s high school math teacher when she was growing up in Racine, Wisc., and he taught her 10th grade computer programming class. Jim Corsica happens to do some theater acting now and he provided an audio recording of himself leading the lesson as well as the overhead transparency that is projected.
The classroom features a linoleum floor and a drop ceiling that will even have a pencil or two hanging from it. There will be gum under the desk tops, and vintage computing posters hang on the walls. Lockers in the classroom are also decorated with 80s-era artwork, and feature clothing items and more inside that tied to the decade.
After school it’s time to head to the video arcade. Right next door is The Bit Zone, and the dimly lit space features several of the best vintage games you could hope to set your hands on: Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, Joust, Tempest, Galaga and a tabletop version of Asteroids.
A token dispenser features a sign from a real Seattle arcade — and spits the coins out for free. But while visitors can certainly play as much as they want, there are arcade rules hung on the walls to encourage equitable playtime. There’s also a free pay phone hanging nearby, and yes, it does work for incoming and outgoing calls.
I tried my own 80s-trained hand at Centipede and managed to play for several minutes on a game that used to capture my attention for much longer. On Donkey Kong, I quickly ran through three lives, as I have completely lost the ability to judge the timing necessary to stay alive in that classic game.
After the arcade, we headed home with “Alex” to a friend’s basement rec room. Warm wood paneling (shipped from Georgia) and exposed floor joists overhead give the room a very Midwest-basement vibe. There is a selection of vintage furnishings, wall hangings, lamps and other decor, and most importantly for computer and game nuts, some hardware to propel the storyline.
“In terms of computing culture in the 80s, this is the point where things have moved out of the computer room and universities and institutions and things are just coming into malls and your home,” Alcorn said. “This is the point where Americans are really meeting the computer and adopting it and making it their own and just embracing it. The ’70s were really important for the spread of the personal computer, but that’s much different than just saturating every bit of your culture.”
On a desk, there is a TRS Color Computer 3 and a selection of cartridges. A Nintendo game console is hooked up to the old TV, with a couple vintage controllers laid out on the floor in front of it. There is also a record player and LPs to sample, a Simon memory game, another phone with an answering machine, and a Betamax video player complete with such titles as “Star Wars: A New Hope,” “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” and “Splash.”
Standing in the room with my iPhone in my hand, the juxtaposition between my modern technology and this snapshot of what I grew up with is really striking.
“You had to grab a cartridge and physically plug it in … you’re not just scanning through your apps and playing a game,” said Lath Carlson, executive director of Living Computers.
It’s conceivable that a visitor to the exhibit could disappear in this room and curl up on the couch, reading a book or flipping through a photo album while listening to old records. Living Computers doesn’t shy from the idea of people becoming part of the exhibit.
“The idea is that you should be able to come in and kind of explore,” Alcorn said. “We just want to see what people do. If someone wants to come in and watch a movie, if that’s how they want to spend their visit, OK.”
“Totally ’80s Rewind” will be open for a members’ only preview on Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Living Computers Museum + Labs, 2245 First Ave S. in Seattle. The exhibit opens to the public on Thursday, and a 21-and-over party on March 24 will feature live aerialists, ’80s-themed karaoke, tabletop gaming, and a scavenger hunt. The exhibit runs through the end of 2018.