Museums of obsolete technology

How do we exhibit technologies we no longer depend on? As in…when was the last time you wrote on handmade paper?

Today we visited Il Museo della Carta, the Museum of Paper, in Amalfi. Once upon a time…starting in the 13th c. for Europe…people wrote on paper that was made from old clothes or any textiles that were no longer useful. Paper was invented in China in the 1st c., and came to Europe via the Moslems in North Africa and the Iberian peninsula. The city of Amalfi on the east coast of Italy just south of Naples was one of the strongest maritime powers in the Mediterranean in the 13th c. (the others were Genoa on the northeast coast and Venice on the northwest coast). Amalfi is located directly on the water and at the foot of a mountain range with many natural springs. The springs were used to power mills to make all sorts of things…including paper. The mill we visited today was built in the 13th c. and functioned into the 1960s! The last owner made provisions in his will to turn the mill into a museum.

The photos below show views outside and inside the mill, including the spring that was funneled into the structure to serve different mill wheels, each of which did a different job in the creation of paper.

The basin where the textile pulp is blended with water for scooping onto a screen…to make your sheet of paper.

This is an old press for flatening the newly made paper after it has dried.

At the left of this image is a cupboard that protect workers from the wheel carrying water that moves the “textile smashers.” This was incredibly loud and dangerous! The two vertical posts move up and down in a stone basin, thus smashing the textile into pulp.

These stone basins and sluices are cut from the mountain and either allow the water to move forward or direct it via basins into the mill where it runs the various wheels.

One member of our group is dipping the screen into the slurry of pulped textile and water; she will then lift it up with “raw paper” on it. That is then pressed onto the leather at the far right where it is allowed to dry before it is “finished” with a sizing. In the Middle Ages sizing was made from boiled rabbit bones; today it is made from a vegetable product.

The screen is at right and its frame is at left. You can see the slurry of textile and water in the stone basin.

And how did they bleach the slurry and make it white? In the Middle Ages urine was used…animal and human.

This museum is at a high point in the city of Amalfi…not at the top of the mountain but high enough that the water still comes rushing swiftly through to power the wheels.

What are the “museums of obsolete technologies” of the future? Have you visited a “museum of obsolete technology”? What do you think of this museum?

23 thoughts on “Museums of obsolete technology

  1. I have not been to a museum of obsolete technology but I have seen obsolete technology exhibited at the Science Museum in London and the Transport Museum in Glasgow. At the Science Museum there was everything from printing presses to old steam engines, obsolete computers to old airplanes. At the Transport Museum there was a tall ship, cars from every decade, old and new bikes and motorcycles, as well as trains, buses, and planes. It is important to keep these old technologies on display because if we don’t know where we’ve come from, we can’t move forward. Although we may not make paper like that anymore, it’s still important to remember the history of paper so that it can inform the future. The Museum of Paper looks very interesting and informative.
    In the future, I’m sure cell phones, laptops, desktop computers, DVDs, maybe even books will all be obsolete technologies preserved in museums.

    • I agree that technology from the 20th century, especially the late 20th century will have its own dedicated museum. I have already seen Walkmans and old IBM computers and typewriters in numerous museums including the MOMA. I told my parents about this and they thanked me for making them feel even older.

  2. One of the museums that I feel like has already started being the museum of obsolete technology of the future is the Newseum in Washington D.C. I have personally not been to this museum, but several of my friends have and it seems like the Newseum is a modern version of the Museum of Paper. I think this museum is very cool and I love that it is included since the making of paper and how sustainable it is is absolutely fascinating to me.

    • The Newseum looked very interesting and to me, it gave a new meaning to museums because it brought history to the present, it was not just history at a certain date to another date, but continues to record every event as history.

      • I think the Newseum is definitely becoming a museum of obsolete technology. They have a longstanding exhibit of the Berlin Wall, and I think it’s interesting to look at how print media has become such a facet of the fabric of our history. It’s interesting to see how digital media will fulfill this role in the future. I also think it’s interesting to think about what will someday surpass our current conception of digital media and if one day what we currently use will become completely irrelevant. I’m excited to see what the future holds.

    • I have been to this museum before and it does have a segment on papermaking if I remember correctly since there is so much information on newspapers located there.

    • I have been to the Newseum with my family multiple times over the years. I always enjoy going there since it is a new design and concept approach to documenting the nations history over the years. Different from showcasing our culture through works of art, sculpture, or architecture, it provides us with access to looking back at the major headlines over the years.

  3. When I was in Trier Germany I went to a museum of medieval torture which had items used by the church and the German lords to torture people who wronged them. It was a haunting but insanely cool museum at the same time! Some memorable items on display were iron maidens and spiked chairs. It’s a good thing these things aren’t used anymore and are considered “obsolete” now. I think the most interesting idea for a museum would be a museum featuring actual obsolete tech. Picture a museum dedicated to old PC’s and workable displays or old computer programs and Operating systems!!

    • I am really glad that those practices are considered obsolete today! Museums like that are cool to look at to understand how life was back in those times, and to see how much societies have changed.

    • It is definitively a good thing that those torture devices are now considered obsolete technology. When I was reading the original blog post my thought also turned to the thought of a museum of obsolete modern technology, such as flip-phones and old computers. Not only would this type of museum be interesting, but it would be nice to see the evolution of technology of in person.

  4. I have not been to a museum of obsolete technology, but I have seen it displayed. In the Lexington Horse Center, they have antique plows on display and the Wright Brothers National Memorial contains replicas of the first planes. I like how the Museum of Paper is still run and visitors may still make paper with the technology. The Museum of Outdated Technology in Rockville, Maryland is dedicated to antique technology.

  5. I think it’s interesting to think about the Luddite movement in the context of obsolete machinery. Much of the objects we consider obsolete today are objects that people used to think were superior and less dangerous than the ones that came later. I have to wonder if there will be a “New-Luddite” movement as technology becomes incredibly ubiquitous in our society. I also wonder if the attempted rejection of technology will be something that is documented in future museums of obsolete technology.

    • I too think about how much technology has changed and what will replace it next. Just looking at phones, there is new ones every few years. The response to new tech compared to obsolete items is great also. New things are always fun to have but can be prone to breaking and freaking out, like the fire alarm in the UC.

  6. I have never personally been to a museam that strictly houses pieces of obsolete technology, but have seen museums put pieces of obsolete technology on display. In the Smithsonian Museum of American History there are a number of old technologies from past centuries that, while obsolete, present the evolution of America along with technology and even helps to represent the culture of the various periods and decades. The next museums of obsolete technologies will likely be those of the latter half of the 20th century. I have already seen Walkmans, old cellphones and even a Mac in the MOMA. Perhaps we will see technology that we are using today in its own dedicated museum of obsolete technology. This site does remind me of sites like colonial Williamsburg which show a look at how the world operated.Perhaps it might not fit in with the usual renaissance fair line up, a museum of obsolete technology such as the one shown above could be interesting.

  7. This looks fascinating!!! Being able to see and directly interact with a “museum of obsolete technologies” feels very exciting. Then again, that might be because I have an interest in the intimate creation of things. Paper, like furniture, was built with individual hands while still being a crucial part of everyday life. Perhaps because paper can be easily manufactured for it’s intended use, creating paper by hand has become an art. That’s why I was immediately reminded of the “Pulped Under Pressure” Exhibition, which featured paper created by hand. Perhaps new “museums of obsolete technologies” will lead to the intimate re-creation of flip-phones. Just because a piece of technology becomes obsolete doesn’t mean people won’t desire to use the technology for a different use, so I think it’s really important that “museums of obsolete technologies” continue to appear and are cared for.

  8. The only museum that I have been to that could be considered obsolete is the Wright Brothers memorial in the Outer Banks. While airplanes aren’t obsolete, the technology has evolved drastically and those types of planes are not used anymore. I think museums of obsolete technologies of the future could hold things like records, tapes, and CD’s since today we have streaming services that connect right to our phones. The way that we used to listen to music is becoming more and more obsolete.

  9. In a sense all museums are full of ‘obsolete technologies’. They have items from the past that have been improved upon or made unnecessary from cultural reasons. I have been to old museums towns from the colonial period, but I have not been to specifically museums dedicated to obsolete technologies with mills and large machines. Some museums like these would be the Air and Space, full of old technology, but not fully obsolete just improved upon. Which is how they will be seen in future also. Products are always changing and will no longer be needed. I think these museums are interesting and important to look at to show how well something worked in the past and to be used as inspiration for later designs because sometimes looking back is very helpful.

  10. This reminds of the exhibit the Ridderholf Martin Gallery on campus had that was all about homemade paper called “Pulped Under Pressure”. I’m not sure if this counts as a museum of “obsolete technology” but I feel it definitely relates to the papermaking from this post. The only museums of obsolete technology that I remember visiting would be the Newseum and the Spy museum up in DC. Both of them had modern tools but had a lot of older pieces that aren’t being used anymore such as an old printing press. I found it fascinating to see how much more manpower and meticulous hours went into printing a piece of paper all those years ago.

  11. Other than the Newseum I haven’t been to any other museums of obsolete technology. However, I do think that museums will start to turn more towards looking at the technology that has brought us to the place where we are now in history. Additionally, most things will turn more towards technology with having access to turn your mobile phone into what details and discussing the work that you are looking at.

  12. I think this paper mill being turned into a museum is a brilliant idea. It is amazing that people got a chance to make paper in the mill, and that the mill could still function today. I am glad that the museum acknowledges the methods of the Middle Ages, but uses more modern (and safe) practices while making the paper. I have never been to another museum of obsolete technology. I have been to museums that have induced obsolete technology in there displays, such as sewing machines and typewrites, but never an entire functioning building repurposed into a museum. I think it is an excellent way to be able to experience the history of paper mills, and makes me want to visit other museums of obsolete technology.

  13. I have not been to a museum of obsolete technology, though I have been to the Science Museum in London. This museum has steam engines, telephone switchboards, typewriters, and much more. It was fascinating to actually see the technology of the past and not just hear about it. Il Museo della Carta looks fascinating, especially the interactive factor of it. I’m sure that museums of obsolete technologies of the future will have cell phones, computers, TVs, et cetera in them.

  14. I honestly cannot think of a single museum of “obsolete technology.” I can however think of specific works of art that if viewed today, they would be considered as “obsolete technology.” Specifically, I am thinking of multiple pieces by the ‘father of video art’ Nam June Paik. He frequently used TVs and VCRs in his work, and if viewed today, people would definitely view them as ‘obsolete’ because no one has a huge boxy TV anymore, they’re all slender and with much bigger screens but probably still weigh considerably less than the TVs Paik used.

    I think this museum is amazing! I know you said that it functioned into the 60s, but you also included a picture of someone in your group who appears to be making paper. So does that mean that it technically is still functional, but only used for demonstration purposes? Or do viewers get to make their own paper if they want to? Because I would definitely pay to be able to make paper at a mill that old!

  15. Museums of obsolete technologies are extremely important for people to be able to understand how things functioned in the past. This shows people what could usually only be seen in diagrams on paper (ironically). Its important to know that while they use technology from the middle ages, they have upgraded to make it safe enough for modern use.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *