Museum Celebrates Spirit of Innovation

Technology center in San Jose, Calif., hopes to forge ties in diverse Silicon Valley.

Near the water cooler in the entryway of the old "Tech" Museum here there are a half-dozen photographs dripping with history.

There's a young Steve Jobs with longish hair, sitting atop a stool in his parents' garage tinkering with concepts that would become the core of Apple Computer Inc. There's another photo of an old wooden building with hinged front doors, the "lab" where Bill and Dave built a business and lent it their names: Hewlett and Packard.

But those photos will not be part of the grandly expanded $100 million Tech Museum of Innovation, built next door to the original museum and ready for a splashy Halloween opening as America's premier testament to the Digital Age. Those photos are about history. Technology is not, at least not yet.

"We wanted to be inspiring rather than documentary. We're not trying to capture history because we don't think the valley is much about that," says Peter Giles, president of The Tech.

Instead, the museum's mission, Mr. Giles says, is to close a "growing gulf between the elites and those living in the shadows of Silicon Valley. We weren't going to bridge that with lots of history lessons."

Technology is riding high these days as a force in America's culture and economy. But in many ways, its history as an integrated part of the social fabric here, where it began, is just beginning. Backers of this new museum hope it will serve as a starting point.

Look around this gentle valley south of San Francisco and you could be in Everyplace, America. Mild climate, low-rise buildings, pastel colors, shirt-sleeve informality.

Bridging the valley

There are scant indications that this place called Silicon Valley has been the launch pad for what some call the New Economy.

Part of the explanation is the secretive nature of the work in question. Part of it is the highly driven and future-oriented people who do the work. And part of it is the very character of the technology revolution itself, which unlike agriculture or conventional industry, has almost no dependency on the earth or geography where it resides.

Bridging Silicon Valley, often described here as more a state of mind than a place, with the actual valley that grounds its name is what this sparkling new mango- and azure-colored museum is all about. It is chock full of interactive displays that celebrate what technology, and the innovative spirit behind it, are doing in the real world. And in that effort, some observers see the formative steps toward a fuller partnership between intellectual and engineering elites, famous for their pocket protectors and quantitative minds, and the world that is ultimately so shaped by their wares.

Of course, high technology does have a history, and there are fledgling and established efforts to chronicle it.

In the broad swath of territory known as Silicon Valley there are acknowledgements: A plaque commemorates the Hewlett-Packard garage in Palo Alto. And there is a quest in Mountain View to designate as a historical landmark the lab built by William Schockley, one of the inventors of the transistor.

Yet these acknowledgments seem more like place holders until the pace of change or trajectory of evolution provides a pause that allows this rocketing industry to reflect.

"The technology world is seen almost as ahistorical," says Jan English-Lueck, an anthropologist at San Jose State University. "It's about now and the future."

Peter Hero is well acquainted with the peculiarities of Silicon Valley, its people and culture. As head of the Community Foundation of Silicon Valley, it's his job to build the kind of philanthropic support and community cohesiveness that doesn't come as naturally here as elsewhere.

Why? Because, as Mr. Hero explains, the Silicon Valley community is made up of people mostly not born here (60 percent), with a heavy proportion having lived here less than five years (20 percent).

The roots of this community barely break the surface locally, and the residents are just as likely to travel to India or Taiwan as to Iowa or Pennsylvania.

Tying such a diverse, young, almost virtual culture to the neighborhoods and barrios of this once predominantly agricultural valley is a slow process, but one the museum seeks to further. From the get-go, there has been an emphasis on community outreach and education. The Tech, for instance, houses a resource center for local teachers to build their knowledge of technology.

Ride your own coaster

The museum hopes to draw schoolchildren by emphasizing hands-on activities. For instance, visitors can design a roller coaster on a computer and then test-ride it on a simulator.

For adults, bioengineering and DNA displays pose ethical quandaries. Remarkably, the displays are but a microcosm of the work that goes on every day within a 50-mile radius, fueled by the brainpower of Stanford University, the money that flows here in the nation's leading fount of technology venture capital, and the toil of immigrants and transplants - all of whom share the trait of ambition.

"We are what the future is supposed to look like," says anthropologist English-Lueck of the Silicon Valley culture.

And if that self-confidence leads to a lack of reflection, Giles says that's natural because this geographical heart of technology is so new.

But the museum will try to foster a deeper sense of community, he adds, "which starts with self-awareness."

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