This week the remains of the laptop used to store files leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, pointlessly but symbolically destroyed by Guardian editors under the eyes of GCHQ, have been put on display at the V&A, a museum of art and design.
It forms part of the All of this Belongs to You exhibition, open until 19 July. Through a series of interventions and installations, it aims to examine “the role of public institutions in contemporary life” and to ask “what it means to be responsible for a national collection”. It raises questions about democracy, as we run up to the election, and about institutional and curatorial practice.
V&A curator, Kieran Long, said that they gained the confidence to show the remains when it was recalled that the museum had broken objects in its own collection, which had been preserved because of the stories they told rather than the artefact’s intrinsic beauty or interest. Thus it now forms part of a display on technology, secrecy and privacy.
Yet, interestingly, the decision was made to show just the laptop and not the other bits of destroyed hardware, as the images above and below show. This is presumably a reflection of the iconic power of Apple products themselves, something that goes beyond the Snowden and Guardian story. Perhaps the ubiquity of the object means that its destruction speaks to us all.
I haven’t yet seen the exhibition, but when I saw the photograph of the laptop on display – the shiny, desirable MacBook reduced to twisted metal and circuitry – I was keen to gauge reactions and asked some friends and colleagues, beyond the V&A itself, for theirs. All are expert in thinking about the history and display of objects, particularly ones related to science, technology and medicine. I am grateful for their comments, which provoke thought about technology, society and the role of museum collections and display.
Steven Lubar: exhibiting the public sphere
It is difficult for museums to exhibit the public sphere of debate and openness. It’s an even greater challenge when the public sphere exists inside our cellphones and laptops and in the circulation of bits over fiberoptic cables.
One way to display it is to focus on a point of attack, on the failure of the public sphere. The V&A exhibition of the shockingly defaced laptop that once contained National Security Agency secrets reveals that something has gone wrong. Why is a museum known for beautiful artefacts showing an act of violence? That the destruction was purely symbolic magnifies the impact.
I applaud the V&A curators for the display. I do wish they could have let themselves change their museum label style just a bit. It’s not important where the laptop was designed or manufactured. Couldn’t they have replaced that with the more relevant information: “Destroyed in London, 2013.”
Steven Lubar is Professor of American Studies, History, and History of Art and Architecture at Brown University and was Director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage from 2004-2014 and Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, 2010-2012.
Thomas Söderqvist: absurd comical theatre
The wrecked Guardian computer should of course be shown. It doesn’t matter whether you are pro- or anti-Snowden; what happened in the basement of the Guardian’s office in 2013 is a most important event in contemporary political and media history, this artefact is pure matter, and material stuff as such doesn’t take sides. (And that said, why are museums so afraid of taking sides?)
However, I wished they had displayed the footage of the destruction (with sound) along with the computer parts. The juxtaposition of the drilling machine and the material remains is amazingly evocative. It almost makes you feel the burning smell of the hard disk. Today’s version of Fahrenheit 451 as absurd comical theatre!
Thomas Söderqvist is Director of the Medical Museion and Professor in History of Medicine at the University of Copenhagen.
Tilly Blyth: displaying absence
Making the ‘Snowden’ computer an exhibit at the V&A is significant. This is not because it displays the actual machine to the public for the first time, but because its display says more about what isn’t there, than what is. The fact that the computer has been smashed up means that the controversial data it once held can’t now be retrieved, even if it remains accessible elsewhere.
This object’s cultural value comes from what has gone, not what is still there. It crystallises the political context of the act of destruction, and reminds us that sometimes the things that aren’t visible say more about our society than those that are.
Tilly Blyth is Keeper of Technologies and Engineering at the Science Museum and curator of their new Information Age gallery.
Nicky Reeves: broken technology
The world’s greatest museum of art and design holds numerous incomplete or partially destroyed objects in its collection: sculptures and paintings defaced or damaged through various forms and periods of iconoclasm, most obviously. It also holds several exquisitely designed Apple products, including a 1992 PowerBook 180, a 1998 iMac G3, and a 2010 iPad, all complete, and in the case of the iPad, unused.
Destroying this particular laptop may not have destroyed The Guardian’s data, but it was far from a meaningless action, all of which makes the display of the broken object so powerful as a permanent record of the action. How to curate and conserve hardware, software and data for perpetuity is a major question for museums and archives right now: reduced to mere material fragments, if the MacBook Air does end up in the V&A’s permanent collection, it will be comparatively straightforward to care for, at least. What to do with that 2010 iPad when the operating system becomes unavailable, however, is another matter…
Nicky Reeves is curator of scientific and medical history collections at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.
Katy Barrett: brand power
In an exhibition designed to get you thinking about the role of design in public life, what could be more symbolic than a MacBook. It is impossible to move in London these days without stumbling over someone using a piece of Apple technology, and there’s something fascinating about this willing adoption of a herd identity created through supremely successful branding. Apple design and Apple functionality will be crucial for any art historian of the future seeking to understand our era, just as the symbols and structures of meaning behind the Civil War or Reformation are for 16th- and 17th-century objects.
There is, therefore, an interesting act of iconoclasm tied up in the totally symbolic destruction of Snowden’s laptop, when the contents were known to be duplicated elsewhere. It seems partly an attack on the ubiquitous power of stylish, complex technology in ordinary people’s hands.
Katy Barrett is Curator of Art, pre-1800, at the National Maritime Museum.
[This post was edited at 09:38 BST to correct the first sentence, which had misleadingly implied that the laptop had belonged to Snowden, to change the sub-header for Thomas Söderqvist’s section and to fix the link included there.]