Building the biggest Apple museum: Collection created with old kit, spare parts, and dedication opens its doors

A journey 13 years in the making has finally come to a conclusion, with Savona's Apple museum finally getting a permanent home.

Trivia question: where can you find what's likely to be the world's largest collection of Apple products? Hint: it's not in San Francisco nor Silicon Valley - it's not even in the US, for that matter.

In fact, anyone who wants to visit one of the world's largest collections of functioning Apple products will have to travel to Savona, a coastal town of 60,000 people in the north west of Italy. By next fall, thanks in part to a successful crowdfunding campaign, the seaport area of the town will become home to what the founders claim will be the biggest museum dedicated to the technologies from the company created by Steve Jobs.

The collection includes more than 10,000 items, among them over 1,000 computers, 244 monitors, 152 printers, and 1,330 hard disks, keyboards, and manuals.

The hardware and software comes from all eras of Apple's history, though the bulk of the collection dates back to the pre-iPod era.

Visitors will have the chance to see an Apple I clone, play with various functioning Apple II and Apple III models, or, for the more curious among them, admire an eMate 300 running the Newton operating system. Developed for the education market, the eMate was quickly discontinued, but its design influenced the first generation of iBooks.

"Everything that has to do with the history of computer science and Apple is welcome," Andrea Palermo, vice-president of All About Apple ONLUS, the non-profit association that runs the museum, told ZDNet.

For Palermo and a dozen other members of the association, the opening will mark a happy ending for a story that's seen quite a few obstacles on the way. For the past five years, the collection has been hidden from the public as bureaucratic problems prevented the museum moving into its full-time home.

"It took quite a long time but we are about to see the light," he said, ahead of the museum's move into a permanent location 7,000 km from Cupertino.

The museum's opening is the end point of a journey which began 13 years ago.

The core of the collection originates from a stock of unsold items from a shop selling Apple products in Savona.

In 2002, the business changed hands and the new proprietor decided to get rid of the old products by offering them to Alessio Ferraro, a software developer who was then providing tech support to the store's customers.

Ferraro, now president of All About Apple ONLUS, accepted the gift and instead of selling the machines to collectors, won a few friends with his crazy idea: finding a venue to display all these outdated machines.

Initially, the computers and the rest of the accessories the shop no longer wanted were kept in the loft of Ferraro's parents' house in Quilliano, a small village in the countryside near Savona. "It was a private space," he said, "but we would still organize open days and visits from time to time."

The first semi-official home for the museum came in 2005 when the mayor of Quilliano allowed the array of computers, keyboards, laptops, and printers to be exhibited in the basement of the local primary school. "We would open the school to the public every Thursday and we would also manage to host a few product presentations," Ferraro said.

The pairing of a small village school in Italy and the history of one of the biggest American high-tech company seemed odd, but it worked.

The collection remained there for the next five years as both Apple and that unusual little museum grew in popularity. In the meantime, the donations started to come at a steady pace, bringing the museum an array of unique pieces, some of which were not even made of silicon. One of them, for instance, was a metal toolbox that supposedly belonged to Steve Wozniak when working at the Apple I computer. Another was a hand-painted sign from 1977 reading "apple computer inc".

"All these things are donated by special people believing in what we do. They buy them in some auction and then they just give them to us instead of keeping them at home," Palermo said.

As the hardware gifts grew, so did the need for more space, since the museum had to store not only the products to exhibit but also the hundreds of broken machines used for spare parts to keep the collection functioning.

With this in mind, in 2010 the All About Apple association struck a deal with the University of Savona, which invited the museum to set up a home on its campus, while a local bank provided funds for the construction works and the relocation.

For Ferraro, Palermo, and their friends, it seemed like a dream come true - and it might well have been, had not it been for the intricacies of Italian bureaucracy. To go ahead, the deal needed approval from University of Genova, to which the Savona campus belongs. However, this approval never arrived, leaving the collection without a permanent home - until now. "We did a few exhibitions here and there but could not fulfill our goal of finding a definitive place," Palermo said.

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Eventually, after five years, a new home was finally found in Savona's seaport area, where the museum is set to open next fall in a renovated venue.

It's a solution that makes the members of the All About Apple association happy, because it will keep the project where it belongs.

"When the news that we were looking for a location broke, we got offers to move to bigger cities, such as Milan or Genova. We might have got more exposure there but ultimately we decided to stay. The idea was conceived in Savona and we're all based in the area, so we'll be able to stay closer to the institution we created," Ferraro said.

The members of the association which runs the museum are understandably proud of their work. After all, they love gadgets, computer science and, of course, Apple. That's why one of the finest moments for them came in 2005 when the company reached out to them, later inviting them to Cupertino to visit the company's headquarters.

"That was quite a recognition for our efforts," Ferraro said. However, the relationship didn't last. There hasn't been further contact between the museum and Apple since, at least officially. "We are still in touch with some employees but they speak to us just in their personal capacity," Palermo said. "Present day Apple appears not too interested in its past," he added. Maybe. But a few thousand miles from Cupertino, a group of computer science enthusiasts most definitely are.

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