In the beginning (or at least in the late 19th century), there was film. Capturing moving images and playing them back for astonished audiences at the cinema more than a century ago was magical. Though many people are still familiar with film, which has endured as a medium despite changing technologies, there are plenty of moving image formats which have been rendered obsolete over time and have found their way into the holdings of numerous libraries, archives, and museums.
In 2006, when we began our efforts at The Strong to preserve the history of video games, we knew we were onto an important subject, but we did not truly foresee the vast array of challenges that we would face in preserving video games. Over the years as we founded the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) and grew our collection to more than 60,000 video games and related objects we’ve learned quite a bit about how to care for these materials.
Reading reports about some retail store closings, it’s hard to ignore that many of us often prefer shopping online with millions of products at our fingertips to navigating a shopping cart through the aisles of our local retailers. As a historian with an interest in consumer culture and as someone who spent countless hours of my childhood playing the latest Nintendo Entertainment System games on a demonstration kiosk at our local K-Mart, it’s difficult to image a world without the striking visual displays and merchandising that have played such an important role in selling products in retail settings. Before the 1880s, few businesses arranged products or store spaces to appeal to shoppers. By the early 20th century, however, following the lead of Philadelphia merchant John Wannamaker and other merchandising pioneers, retailers of all kinds re-decorated their stores using glass cases, mirrors, color schemes, better lighting, interior displays, and show windows to entice their customers. And these displays have been part of retail settings ever since. Not surprisingly, visual merchandising (or the presentation of goods and products in order to attract customers) played an important role in selling home video games from the beginning.
When The Strong museum recently acquired a Shirley Temple doll from the 1930s, it went to the museum’s doll conservator Darlene Gengelbach for treatment. These dolls have sleep eyes that open and close with metal rockers. The rocker is a spindle attached to the inside of the doll's head with a small weight attached to a metal plate. Each painted metal eye has a celluloid pupil and iris.
More significantly, the celluloid centers of Shirley Temple's eyes appeared "crazed," a term conservators use to describe fine cracking throughout the early plastic. In the early 20th century, manufacturers used celluloid to make knife handles, fountain pens, and phonograph records. It imitated ivory, wood, tortoiseshell, or bone. When celluloid deteriorates, it can appear cloudy, cracked, or shattered. After a certain point in time, the celluloid's inherent vice causes it to catastrophically fail, crumbling or shattering into small glass-like chips. The Shirley Temple doll we acquired had celluloid eyes that were in the late stages of deterioration.
I’ve admired The Strong’s vintage Drive-Mobile arcade game since the first time I stood in front of it with Martin Reinhardt, the museum’s arcade game conservation technician. It was exciting to see how the first arcade driving game—a popular and enduring genre—actually worked. Martin opened the back of the game for me and demonstrated the mutoscope drum design in action. Early mutoscope machines contained a revolving flipbook on a spindle to create the illusion of a moving image when a customer looked through the viewfinder. The International Mutoscope Company first made coin-operated mutoscope machines before they eventually branched out to produce arcade games such as Drive-Mobile.
If you are a human with a job and colleagues, your coworkers probably send you links to various items on the Internet. These may include the occasional funny cat video, but most of the time the content probably has a legitimate connection to your job. In my case, people send me numerous articles about preservation and, thankfully, most of it is good news.
Before I came to The Strong, my exposure to pinball had been limited to the Barbie Shakin’ Pinball handheld video game that I received for Christmas 1995. I have definitely come a long way in my pinball knowledge since then, from learning the proper terms for components I never knew existed (pop bumpers are my favorite) to discovering the game’s tumultuous and sometimes scandalous past (mob connections, anyone?). Once I saw the machines up close, I became fascinated with the several different types of artwork that appear on every pinball machine.
In the spring, guests attending The Strong’s Museum Secrets events got a behind-the-scenes look at The Strong’s conservation labs and learned about some of the strategies and techniques used to keep collections preserved.