When people say “best kept secret” they usually mean “tourist hotspot,” but the computer museum (called The Jim Austin Computer Collection, or the Computer Sheds) in Fimber, about 40 minutes out of York, is York’s best kept secret, and it’s anything but busy. In fact, we should keep it between you and I. I would be pretty sad if it suddenly became a major tourist attraction because as it is, it’s pretty much the best collection of artefacts that I’ve ever seen (and all the guys who keep it running were only too happy to talk computers with our group of 5 people who ventured out of York). I’d wanted to see this collection since 2008, when I first heard about it, but this was my first opportunity to do so, and I’m glad I did (and that I went with a bunch of people who knew more stuff about old computers than I do – and I’m pretty enthusiastic about them).
One of the best things about this place is that it hasn’t had “museum heritage management” done to it yet; it’s still got that sense of discovery, you’re not just seeing what some overpaid museum education officer wants you to see, you get to see everything. And touch some of it (if you’re careful and sensible). There’s other electronic equipment besides computers – televisions, cameras and radio equipment are also represented in the collection.
There’s no cafe, there’s no gift shop, no ticket office, and no twee middle aged women reiterating the same 5 facts every 20 minutes to new tour groups; there’s just boatloads of computers, and the people who love them (and they do actually have a boat). It’s fitting, because that’s really how the whole computer movement has progressed. There are so many stories of “Windows started out as two enthusiastic guys in a garage,” “Apple started out as three enthusiastic guys in a garage,” and so on, that if this place got the proper museum treatment, I’d be sad.
The Jim Austin Computer Collection reminds me of why I fell in love with archaeology – and exactly why I have no intention of working in a museum. This stuff is real, it feels real, it’s being taken care of by people who know about it, and I recognized loads of the stuff that was there. More than that, it felt alive. There’s no arbitrary reductionism going on to cheapen the past to make it more palatable for people with short attention spans. I wish I could say the same for most museums.
But if this place did become a ticketed, gift-shopped museum, I think it’s the one museum I’d actually enjoy working at.
I have more photos, but since the majority of my readers are not computer enthusiasts, I shall save them for another time.
If you are in the area and would like to visit the Jim Austin Computer Collection, further details can be found at their website. Personally I found this to be a great day out, although I wouldn’t recommend it for (chronological) children unless they’re sensible and very well behaved. Entry is free but it would probably be polite to get in touch in advance so someone’s there to open up the place for you.