Permanently computed: The museum is burning. Can permacomputing help?

Olivier Van D’huynslager

7 min readMar 13, 2024

During the autumn of 2023, FIBER hosted Part 5 of its Reassemble Lab: Practising Permacomputing, a concept and a nascent community of practice oriented around issues of resilience and regenerativity in computer and network technology that is derived, among others, from permaculture principles. In this article, Olivier Van D’huynslager discusses the transformative potential of digital technology in relation to permacomputing principles within a museum context, focusing on sustainable cultural production and emphasising the critical need for purposeful digitisation.

Prototype of Searcher presenting ever-changing relational maps of the MAO collection. MAO collection © 2023 Museum of Architecture and Design, Ljubljana. All rights reserved.

In 1937, designer and writer Anni Albers asserted that “[w]e must come down to earth from the clouds where we live in vagueness and experience the most real thing there is; material.” [1] As images of the Apple Vision Pro’s debut in public space flooded our social media feeds recently, my unease grew. Echoing feminist theorist Donna Harraway, I wonder, is this our way of confronting current challenges? Through virtual lenses that transform the world into a seemingly improved version of itself, and by extension, produce an enhanced version of ourselves? Are we, in essence, choosing to “stay with the trouble” through augmented realities?

Museums have been swept up into the experience economy by the post-internet wave, now also becoming realms of ice creams, balloons and vibrant colours meticulously designed for our Instagram feed. The year 2020 marked an identity crisis for museums, a situation that has only deteriorated by 2024. On one hand, we now see a positive surge in exhibitions, programs and infrastructure focused on sustainability, circularity, and inclusivity. On the other, there’s a collective rush to embrace the latest AI-driven attractions.

The role of artificial intelligence in museums became more pronounced in 2023 with the mass rise of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), enhancing everything from visitor experiences to curatorial practices and the preservation of collections. While there’s some critical engagement with the moral and legal implications of AI, its significant energy demands, reliance on extraction of rare-earth minerals, and broader socio-political ramifications are often overlooked. The irony is palpable: we promote sustainability while the very tools we use to do so challenge these principles.

I’m not here to take sides in the AI debate. Rather, I believe it’s crucial to explore the symbiotic relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. According to the often memed aphorism attributed to American lawyer and economist Leo Cherne: the computer is incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Man is unbelievably slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. The marriage of the two is a force beyond calculation.” [4] This interdependence might just be the key to navigating our complex, technology-driven world.

From the perspective of my work at Design Museum Gent, this article delves further into how principles of permacomputation can steer the museum towards setting goals towards a more sustainable model of cultural production. It emphasises the importance of maintaining a critical stance on technological advancements like AI while acknowledging the hurdles present within our operational context.

Slowing things down

Thinking about change in the midst of renovation and preparing for a reopening in 2026 can be an operational daunting task. Yet, the temporary closure of the museum can also herald a period of “rest” or radical openness, a time for critical reflection on past practices that can inform us on the foundations of our future models. In this context, “rest” relates to permaculture and permacomputing, tracing fallow ground, emphasising the creation of environments that encourage production at a slower pace.

In this search towards positive “slowness”, the museum has recently initiated a set of program studios focusing on topics of change within the organisation; from graphic design, to digital technologies, collections as well as one on “care”. By slow programming we envision creating spaces of engagement, as researcher, curator, and founder of Slow Research Lab, Carolyn. F. Strauss puts it: “conscious fields of potentiality within which a multiple of meanings may be generated and new horizons become visible.”

For some, this search for meaningful and sustainable change, can feel like fixing something that isn’t necessarily broken (yet). For others it means being prepared to act when things do break. Through the introduction of external voices in these studio programs, we aim to open up this conversation, increase and appreciate diversity and avoid the pitfalls of creating a monoculture of set, confirmed, and established practices.

Fix things that aren’t broken (yet)

Studio Digital, from 2024 onwards, as part of the museum, will specifically explore the impact of digital technology on contemporary design practices. Working together with designers and researchers over extended periods, the studio aims to progressively develop digital solutions that drive positive change both within and beyond the museum’s confines. Rather than focusing on single purpose applications that we outsource once, the studio is looking into decentralising the process and approach towards methods that aid us in creating modular building blocks, emphasising small, manageable systems tailored to human-scale interaction.

Permacomputing server in the offices of Design Museum Gent. Repurposed Mac Mini now acting as a Debian Server.

Everything has a place

To amplify awareness on permacomputational principles and how they can inform us when thinking of positive change, we aim to strategically situate our projects on different levels of operation within the museum to reach a broader audience. A first project, together with Amsterdam-based, German-born graphic designer Lukas Engelhardt (who co-hosted the first FIBER permacomputing workshop), will be looking into alternative ways of communicating and broadcasting activities via some sort of livestream.

Looking into creating (supposedly) autonomous spaces, both online and offline, he critically engages the dynamics between the software and hardware we use and the ethical values we uphold. Together with Lukas, we are creating an installation to create a sense of connection to a remote location — the site for the manufacturing of bricks which will be used in the renovation of the Design Museum Gent. Creating tools of transmission that critically engage with existing technological infrastructures such as the cloud:

“Hopefully, it can serve as a starting point for reflection about cloud infrastructures that often form the basis for remoteness, such as video calling software or shared photo albums. By proposing alternatives, the installation raises questions about resolution, participation, immediacy and permanence.” — Lukas Engelhardt

Everything has a place, and it’s important to reflect on how this affects the message. An artistic practice is most likely to be shown in an exhibition context, yet it is equally important to showcase these solutions as viable tools for “real-life” scenarios. When looking into alternative means of “visual communication” we also need to engage with other departments in the museum, to see if these alternatives uphold. In other words, how can the museum take responsibility, and not only program sustainable practices, but also use them as a means of and for programming themselves? If not museums, as potential agents of change, as places that embrace experiment, who will be the early adopter of these designed changes?

Collections of care

A second project initiated from within the studio, looks into the role of technology in visualising vast museum collections. Driven by advancements in digital imaging technology, the increased accessibility of the internet, and the growing recognition of the potential for digital platforms to enhance access to museum collections amassed digital wastelands filled with data relating to their collections. Thinking about a lighter internet [3], also means critically questioning our data hoarding in terms of their finality. Instead of simply digitising everything, we are formulating a strategy that promotes purposeful digitisation; accumulating knowledge instead of information.

To promote the use and reuse of this accumulated knowledge, we are collaborating with Jon Stam, a Canadian designer working and living in Amsterdam on the project SEARCHER.

“SEARCHER” is the first artistic output of Rituals of Access, Jon Stam’s artistic PhD, examining power dynamics between museums and their public, prototyping ways to expand visitor agency through interaction design. Through SEARCHER, we want to rethink the unidirectional communication of museum interfaces towards new associative ways of searching the collection:

“How can networked technologies be designed to open issues of access and authorship in such a way that enable visitors to actively negotiate knowledge (…) in such a way that lived experiences and stories are welcomed as part of the shared authority in museums?” — Jon Stam

Build on solid grounds

To conclude, returning back to AI, designer Linda Dounia Rebeiz recently wrote, “what we don’t include in training today contributes to a much hazier and incomplete understanding of our world”. [5] For the museum this essentially means that in the age of generative AI, we might have to consider that simply “not taking part” is perhaps not the best option. If we want to build on solid grounds, we’ll have to engage and rethink these structures in meaningful ways.

By reflecting on our current practices and thinking alongside principles such as those of permacomputation, we aim to transition from an institution that simply cares for collections towards an institution that endorses the creation of collections of care.


[1] Anni Albers. 1937. Work with Materials.

[2] Permacomputing Principles. Permacomputing Wiki.

[3] Osipian, Margarita, and Leanne Wijnsma. “Towards a Lighter Internet.” HistoricALL! Published by Onomatopee.

[4] The original quote, which has often been misattributed to Albert Einstein and Leo Cherne, reads: “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid. On the other hand, a well trained operator as compared with a computer is incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant.” It comes from the Instrument Society of America’s 1969 proceedings, and written by H.D. Couture and Marion Keyes.

[5] Linda Dounia Rebeiz. 2023. AI tools paint a blurry picture of our current reality — so what do these biases mean for our future? It’s Nice That.

Olivier Van D’huynslager is curator of digital culture and design at Design Museum Gent, Belgium. Leading “Studio Digitaal”, he is looking into the impact of digital technologies on contemporary design. He specialises in web technology and digital infrastructures within the realms of design and museums, examining their effects from a transhistorical viewpoint.




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