When ‘Digital’ meets Collection: How do (traditional) museums manage?
Museums are awash in all things ‘digital’. We have apps, gallery interactives, virtual reality experiences, video exhibition teasers, social media marketing, online museum shops, ticketing software, CRMs, DAMs, CMS databases — the list goes on. And with all this tech come the expectations for the speed, user experience and amazing content that we have come to expect outside of museums.
Contrast this fast-paced slice of digital experience with the stuff that forms the foundation of museums, our raison d’être: our collections. Museums are filled with thousands, sometimes millions, of objects created over eons. The majority are man-made objects, mostly crafted from traditional media: wood, silver, porcelain, linen, canvas, etc. As museums, our professional goals are all about long-term preservation and access, today and 100+ years on. For these very traditional media, we know what that means (low light; limited handling; stable environment). What happens when the ‘digital’ becomes part of our collections?
Time-based Media Art (TBMA), for our purposes work that has duration as a dimension and requires technology to be experienced, has existed and been collected by museums for a long time (the 18th-century automata in Neuchâtel’s Museum of Art and History for example). Digital TBMA has existed since the 1950s and 60s, with Contemporary art museums collecting it since then. In recent years, digital media art is finding its way into smaller and/or more traditional museum collections.
In an encyclopedic museum like the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), where the collections are divided along both material and cultural lines, the ‘Contemporary’ and ‘Photography & New Media’ departments collected the museum’s first digital art. Now every curatorial area is acquiring it. And the more we collect, the more urgently we need to understand how to fit digital media art into our traditional models of acquisition, preservation and stewardship.
So, what’s the problem? First and foremost, it’s technology. Digital art (described broadly in this British Council video, What Is Digital Art? (2015) as “art made in a digital age”) relies on technology. It’s video, audio, animation, GIFs, code, immersive experiences, hybrid mixes of digital and physical, and more. It requires technology to exist – hardware, software, media players, storage drives, the Internet, etc.. And therein lies the problem: given the pace of change, it is not a question of if the technology will fail or become obsolete, but when.
For a museum collecting digital art, knowing your artworks have a severely limited lifespan requires a very different approach to stewardship. But what does digital art stewardship look like? The thought leaders who began working with, collecting and preserving digital media art early on have made tremendous strides in figuring out what digital TBMA preservation and stewardship means. These leaders include the Matters In Media Art project (including Tate, MoMA, and SFMoMA), the Guggenheim museum in New York, and Smithsonian’s Time-based Media Art Working Group, independent bodies such as Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) and Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP), the Electronic Media Group of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), among others. They have created a rich resource for the rest of us, showcasing the care requirements of TBMA and digital media art.
At Mia, we hold a small collection of TBMA (currently 22 objects), of which roughly two-thirds are digital media. Several years ago, we recognized these collections were not getting the unique care they required and set out to do something about it. Our efforts ultimately led us to the National Digital Stewardship Residency in Art Information (NDSR Art), an iteration of the National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR) program developed by America’s Library of Congress in conjunction with the US government agency Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Mia successfully applied to host a project to improve preservation and stewardship for our digital art. (You can see our project proposal here.) In July 2017, our NDSR Art resident arrived for a one-year focused effort.
The project kicked off with some initial research on digital art preservation best practice, looking at all the great guidance provided by those thought leaders already mentioned. It became clear quite quickly that (1) we had not realised how much we did not know and (2) applying the existing advice and best practice to our needs was not straightforward. Questions begat questions begat questions, so we expanded our research and adjusted our goals. We reached out to colleagues across the sector who were unfailingly generous with their time and expertise, and we made some realisations.
Realisation One: Conservators are ‘the bomb’
The first quarter of Mia’s NDSR Art residency targeted the preservation needs of the existing collection. We had been treating our digital art as purely physical objects, with no detailed documentation, no backups or check sums, no access or preservation copies, and no plan to ensure the works remain viable, and that needed to change. Research and advice helped us understand that meeting this project goal required time and expertise that we lacked. How were other museums managing? Our first realisation was that most museums rely on trained, in-house Conservation staff to care for their digital media art.
Mia has no conservators on staff. Our external conservation providers have no TBMA or digital art expertise. As I write this, my search for ‘electronic media’ specialists–the closest I can get to ‘digital media art’–via the AIC’s ‘Find a Conservator’ site finds no one within 300 miles of Minneapolis. Most of those at an ‘unlimited distance’ (the next available search option) live on the coasts.
There is a real dearth of trained digital media art conservators in the US. If museums have none (and only a few major museums do), they may rely on more general ‘Objects’ conservators to do the work, perhaps with the help of multimedia specialists or moving image archivists. East and West Coast museums have the option to outsource conservation expertise, from individuals or a business like Small Data Industries (founded in 2017 by Ben Fino-Radin, formerly of MoMA, to fill the conservation gap). For the rest of us, expanding our internal skill set may be the best short-term option.
Realisation Two: Process is half the battle
For a museum, successfully preserving digital media art requires that it be exhibitable over time. We already know that the technology will fail or become obsolete: hard drives fail, CDs delaminate, software stops being supported and old technology is phased out. As Vint Cerf, one the Internet’s founding fathers notes, it isn’t clear whether digital art “will last 20 years let alone 20,000.” We can combat this by migrating to new media or platforms, emulating a work’s original environment, and replacing old technology with new (e.g., use a newer model media player). The solution appears simple but looks can be deceiving.
For a glimpse of the technical complexities of preserving a TBMA work, I recommend Ben Fino-Radin’s MoMA blog post Art in the Age of Obsolescence: Rescuing an Artwork from Crumbling Technologies (2016). It recounts the (somewhat terrifying) journey through the failure points of a single artwork–Teiji Furuhashi’s ‘Lovers’ (1994), a “[c]omputer controlled, five-channel laser disc/sound installation with five projectors, two sound systems, two slide projectors, and slides (color, sound)”–and the immense effort required to resuscitate it.
Fixing the technical problems is only part of the solution. As explained on the NYU Institute of Fine Arts’ Conservation program website, “Technology-based art is considered to be more sensitive to damage, loss, misinterpretation, and incorrect installation than a traditional artwork, due to its very specific and sensitive relationship of time, space, and concept.” (One can certainly see that in MoMA’s “Lovers”.) Successful preservation requires maintaining both the original aesthetics of a work and the artist’s intent re: a viewer’s experience of it as technological problems are resolved.
Detailed documentation is museums’ best tool for ensuring future stewards understand and can replicate (as closely as possible) a work’s original look and feel. We need to know all about how it is constructed, what tools were used to make it and the machinery required to display it (i.e., its ‘identity’); the variations of presentation any time a work was displayed (i.e., the ‘iterations’) to understand acceptable display parameters, and what is important to the artist about any of these. Does it matter to them if newer tech can display their work at higher definitions? if the noise made by one media player in an installation sounds different from a newer player? Maybe they’ll care and maybe they won’t, but we stewards need to know. And that is quite different from what we document about something like a 17th-century painting.
Once the range of documentation required for digital media art was clear to us, we realised Mia’s processes needed major revision. For example, digital media art acquisition–unlike traditional media–requires additional, front-loaded information gathering. The best time to generate a complete picture of a work is when we are in close contact with an artist and/or their gallery, considering an acquisition. This is when we explore the critical elements–the ‘must haves’, ‘would likes’ and ‘don’t care either way’s–of a work. (These are questions we would not have to ask about an Old Master painting.) Knowing the detail of what constitutes an artwork and what it will take to maintain it over time also ensures the museum can budget for ongoing care as well as the acquisition cost before we commit to a purchase and not get caught out later. (Ask me about the replacement cost of projector light bulbs some time.)
Realisation Three: It takes a village
Through our NDSR Art residency project, Mia realised that digital media art preservation and stewardship requires a wide variety of expertise: conservators, registrars, multimedia and IT specialists, collections information managers, curators and artists. Collaboration is key to understanding, documenting and preserving these complex and essentially fragile works. We must change museum processes and even how we think about objects. And we must be proactive, to protect these works before they fail. No one conservator or expert of any kind can address every technical challenge. Specialists from across the digital and museum spectrums must work in partnership to ensure these works survive.
Fortunately, the sector has already proven it is open and supportive. Professional bodies (Electronic Media Group and AIC, etc.), initiatives (NDSR and NDSR Art; Matters in Media Art, etc.), organisations and individuals are committed to sharing their expertise and the products of their work. Exciting research on emulation from Yale University’s ‘emulation as a service’ project to Rhizome’s web-art focused initiatives (Net Art Anthology; Webrecorder) is currently developing open-source tools to archive and access digital works. Funders and corporations like Google are both supporting this work and educating a world that takes ‘digital’ for granted. (See the Google Arts & Culture Saving Internet Art site.) Artists themselves are thinking forward and beginning to help us protect their legacies by proactively documenting their work and helping collectors prepare for long-term preservation. And, closing the circle, museums are inviting artists to participate actively in the preservation process, for example in SFMoMA’s Artist Initiative.
This work on digital media art happening across sectors is collectively empowering all types of museums to deliver the same high-quality preservation and stewardship to its newest art forms that more traditional media has received since we first began protecting art for today and the future.
If you are interested in learning more about Mia’s NDSR Art residency project, you can read resident Erin Barsan’s final project report here. Look out for a forthcoming project Case Study on Mia’s website. Following the residency, staff across Mia continue working collaboratively to take forward TBMA preservation and stewardship. Feel free to contact me with questions about our work at firstname.lastname@example.org. Erin Barsan has now joined Small Data Industries in New York and we look forward to calling on her expanding expertise as questions arise (and you can, too)!