Susan Kare and Her Macintosh Icons: A Co-Acquisition

Ben Fino-Radin, Martina Haidvogl, and Mark Hellar
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Four: 2015-2016


In the spring of 2015, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) inves­tigated co-acquiring a selection of icons of a graphic designer who pioneered countless design concepts in user interface and human-computer interaction and gave Macintosh computers a sense of personality through her iconic designs: Susan Kare. Kare’s archive as it presented itself to the two institutions included hand-drawn graphics, a sketchbook, and over 300 floppy disks containing born-digital artifacts. Spanning over almost two decades, this collection beautifully documents Kare’s working process and allows us to tell the story of the creation of today’s most famous Macintosh icons. This paper will detail the thrilling, and at times challenging, path of accessing the icons on floppy disks, examining them, emulating them, and facilitating broad cross-disciplinary review by curators and conservators at MoMA and SFMOMA.

This acquisition has caused all involved constituents to face numerous challenging questions, some for the first time. How do museums approach born-digital archives comprised of hundreds of files in varying states of obsolescence and obscurity? How can two institutions effectively engage in a co-acquisition when there are great information management needs in order to support effective curation? How can conservators provide curators with a stable and consistent viewing environment for born-digital materials that are multi-faceted and could be viewed myriad ways depending on the software used to interpret the material? How can tools designed for forensic analysis be adopted for the mass analysis and curation of a panoply of files and materials? This paper aims to answer some of these questions by detailing how SFMOMA and MoMA collaboratively ventured to acquire a selection of a large convolute of digital icons, living on obsolete data media. It will also look to the future of how these artifacts of user interface design will be exhibited both within the walls of institutions, and more broadly, on the web.

Ben Fino-Radin
Associate Media Conservator
Museum of Modern Art

Martina Haidvogl
Associate Media Conservator
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Mark Hellar
Hellar Studios LLC