The Center for Cisco Heritage (CCH), a collaboration between Cisco and the Computer History Museum (CHM), was launched in 2013 after internal attempts to save Cisco history faced setbacks. The complications sparked new questions about how to accomplish long-term preservation in a business climate that continues to be forward-focused. In a technology ecosystem so focused on the road ahead, how do we balance the view from the rear-view mirror?
CHM’s experience documenting Silicon Valley culture and history offered an answer. Tapping into the Museum’s professional skill sets and centering our goal of decoding technology, the Center for Cisco Heritage built an archive on Cisco’s campus and collected a wide array of artifacts, hardware, oral histories, ephemera, and multimedia content. In 2017, we opened Our Story, an exhibit at Cisco headquarters, and immediately began to think about how to bring our hard work on the company’s rich history into today’s digital sphere.
The Center for Cisco Heritage set out to develop a digital experience exploring Cisco history that would be engaging to a wide audience. But in an era where we can search instantly for the answers to most questions, how do we take a panoramic view of history for people with varying levels of interest? How do we balance an important and innovative history with the present-day direction of a large company? How do we balance the individual interests of different units, from engineering to marketing to customer experience? How can we develop a portrait that honors multiple decades of work? The CCH director and archivist debated the best approach for each of these issues. While corporate timelines that show statistics and products from across the years are the norm, they are static documents, more akin to press releases then exhibits or experiences.
Working with Dome Collective, we thought about how to create an exploratory timeline that allows users to see both the depth and breadth of company history without overwhelming them with encyclopedic entries. We wanted to keep the experience playful as well as illuminating. So, to organize Cisco’s heritage, we created four themes: innovation, culture, leadership, and internet event to help guide individuals through the Cisco Story exhibit.
While most company histories are heavy on innovation and leadership, the culture theme is one of my favorite threads in the Cisco Story, weaving in Cisco’s continual commitment to social responsibility and education no matter how the technology shifts over time. It’s exciting to see not only the launch of the Network Academy in 1997, basically the “shop class” of the twentieth century but also the modern impact. What started as a gift of hardware to a local school grew into a global technology education program reaching 7.8 million students in 180 countries within 20 years.
Another unique challenge of corporate archives is the line between modern marketing and the context of historical interpretation. We know that time moves fast in Silicon Valley, so the exhibit is designed to keep up with the pace of change, including modern innovation alongside historic breakthroughs and updated annually.