Preserving Digital Art: Museums Capitalising on the Innovation Adoption Lifecycle
Frances Lloyd-Baynes, Head of Collections Information Management, Minneapolis Institute of Art, United States
When it comes to their relationship with digital technology, museums — just like individuals — are not all on the same tech trajectory. They exist at every stage of the Innovation Adoption Lifecycle. Frances Lloyd-Baynes argues that where a museum sits on this curve significantly affects its approach to exhibitions, audience engagement, communication, enterprise, content management, and, increasingly, to its collections
Museums come in all flavours and sizes. Their collections range from the sublime to the quixotic, filling from one small cabinet to multiple buildings. The museums that I know best, where I have worked for the past thirty years, are fine and decorative arts museums, both large and small. Today I am based at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), a large encyclopedic museum located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, deep in the American Midwest.
Mia’s collection of 90,000+ objects is drawn from cultures around the world and spans 6000 years of human history. The museum has been inspiring audiences through the power of art for over a century. Mia’s objects are primarily what could be considered “traditional” types of art: oil paintings, ceramics, prints, photographs, sculpture, furniture, metalwork, etc., though increasingly its collections are digital in nature, either all or in part.(1)
The museum world is no stranger to digital technology. It has infiltrated museums via gallery interactives (which Mia began creating 20+ years ago), databases for managing collections and customer relationships, marketing via website and email, social media, and more; today, digital technology supports nearly every activity of museums like Mia. And that digital technology is appearing in our collections more and more, in the form of videos, animations, multimedia installations, digital audio, virtual and augmented reality, and even code and social media. (Arran Rees recently made the argument for collecting social media content as art.(2)) In 2013, the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum acquired its first piece of code: Planetary, “an iPad application written in C++ using the Cinder framework”.(3) These kinds of artworks — also termed “time-based media art” for their defining characteristics of a reliance on temporality and technology — are what I mean when referring to “digital art” in this article.
The trend for collecting digital art (or art with digital components) began in the 1950s and ’60s. Since then, it has flourished in contemporary art collections (Tate, MoMA, the Guggenheim, etc.) as artists experiment with new technology and museums introduce it into exhibition spaces and then their permanent collections. Far from being purely a “first-world” phenomenon, artists across cultures and around the globe are creating digital art. As digital art gains in prevalence and this “new media” is no longer new, but part of our everyday lives globally, it has spread into the collections of smaller and/or more “traditional” museums like Mia. This adoption creates significant challenges for such organisations, which uphold collections preservation and stewardship in their missions.
Over the past several years, I have witnessed Mia’s recognition of the challenges of digital art stewardship and participated in its efforts to meet them head on. I’d like to share some thoughts on our progress and the state of digital art stewardship efforts in the United States. First, let’s consider our relationship with technology.
Most of you likely will have heard of Moore’s Law, either by name or reputation. The simplified version predicts that “processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers will double every two years.”(4) Gordon Moore’s original idea (dating from 1965) referred specifically to transistors and integrated circuits.(5) Today it’s been popularly generalised to apply to all information technology (IT).
History shows that actual technological development has not stuck to Moore’s proposed timetable, yet we (members of the public) retain a general sense that the pace of technological change is accelerating.(6) The ways we face and embrace this change progression depend on our openness to innovation, as described by the Innovation Adoption Lifecycle.
The Innovation Adoption Lifecycle (of which you have also likely heard) categorizes individuals into one of five groups based on their speed in adopting a new technology from the time it becomes available.
The designated groups, from earliest to latest adopters, are:
• Innovators, who have the highest risk tolerance, are willing to adopt emerging technologies that could well fail, and are operating at the so-called “bleeding edge”
• Early Adopters, a step behind the Innovators and a bit more careful about the technology they adopt; they operate at the “leading edge” and are the ones the rest of us watch to see which tech flies and which flops
• Early Majority, who wait to adopt until a technology has proven itself (through the Early Adopters’ use) and the risk (and the price!) is lowered
• Late Majority, who come to technology after the average individual, once that technology is well established and may no longer even be considered “innovative”
• Laggards, the last to adopt a technology, adopting it after it is so well established it is already “mainstream” and used by most of the population.(7)
We can all find ourselves somewhere on this bell-curve, whether we were the first on our block to purchase a drone or have a landline as our only telephone. As this chart [illus 2] illustrates, most of us fall into the Early Majority and Late Majority categories. I believe this pattern of innovation adoption holds true in the art and museum sectors and their engagement with digital art.
In the context of digital art, I see the Innovators as the practitioners — artists taking digital technology and pushing it to its limits in the expression of new concepts and experiences through their resultant artworks. They are joined by communities of interest and support, such as Electronic Arts Intermix, “a non-profit resource that fosters the creation, exhibition, distribution and preservation of media art”(8) founded in 1971.
As innovative digital art hit the scene, the Early Adopters appeared in the form of contemporary art galleries, collectors, and museums, exhibiting and then acquiring the new digital art for their collections. Having now collected digital art for several decades, they have had ample opportunity to understand the unique needs of these artforms and how they differ from more traditional art media, as their collections have grown to the thousands.
Museums like Mia fall squarely in the camp of the Early Majority when it comes to digital art. They have substantial collections of more traditional art, may have come later to contemporary art collecting, and to date have only acquired modest collections (in the 10s to 100s) of digital art, such as video, multimedia installations, animations, etc. They have also begun to recognise the specific needs of digital art and are looking to the Early Adopters for the benefit of their experience in addressing those needs. What does this situation look like in practice?
Care & Tending of Digital Art
Technological obsolescence is a fact of life in the digital age: hardware fails and is discontinued by its manufacturers, software is no longer developed or supported, media types fall by the wayside as new forms are developed. (When was the last time you played a cassette tape? Whatever happened to that old iPod you used before you started relying on your Smartphone and online streaming services? Do you even own any CDs anymore?)
When an artwork is partly or completely digital, its existence depends on technology: software to encode an animation; hardware to playback digital video files or run software; the Internet to provide live data or other content. As that technology fails (and it will fail eventually, it’s just a question of when), we must find new ways to enable and deliver the digital content — or the artwork will cease to exist in its original form, perhaps cease to exist all together.
For museums dedicated to the longer-term preservation of art and its accessibility to current and future audiences, the technological obsolescence of digital art presents significant logistical as well as ethical challenges.
First and foremost, museum staff need to understand that digital art preservation presents problems that, if ignored, will only grow. We must learn to be proactive in preserving digital art in ways that a marble sculpture, for example, does not require.
Digital files must be backed up and transferred to safe, distributed, digital preservation storage and files’ status — their “fixity” — checked regularly for deterioration (“bit rot”). That needs to be done before the digital files go bad. Software must be migrated to new formats or processes developed to emulate it in its original environment. Old hardware must be stockpiled or new, equivalent hardware found.
In contrast to most traditional media art, our success preserving a digital artwork depends significantly on our understanding of the artist’s intent when creating the work. We can dissect a work and understand its anatomy, but what about its “identity”? What makes a work unique and the experience the artist intended an audience to have with it? Grasping this requires research, conversations with the artist, documentation of the work’s behaviour and the (multiple) iterations it may have taken in its life. (Exhibition designs can significantly alter a digital media artwork’s presentation. Which exhibition installation was the truest to the artist’s vision? The most successful in their eyes? When it was projected on a wall, for example, or shown on multiple small monitors?)
The better we understand the artwork’s unique identity, the more successful we can be at ensuring its ongoing existence in the form its maker intended. If we fail to understand the work, can we honestly present it as “original” once the digital files, software, hardware, and playback devices have failed and been replaced by more modern versions? Herein lies a major ethical dilemma.
Processes & Procedures
Digital preservation and stewardship require changes to museums’ approach to artwork and the processes and procedures we follow. We must ask more (and more detailed) questions about digital artworks and document the answers. (Obviously, our best chance to develop an understanding of a work’s identity is while the artist is still living and is usually at the time of acquisition.) We must identify — and budget for — the ongoing costs of maintaining and exhibiting digital artworks above and beyond their acquisition price. We need to think through the implications of acquiring objects that may have no physical form, just bits and bytes (How will we track the location of a digital file? How would we loan it to another museum?), or works that require technology that will become obsolete within a few short years (Can we stockpile equipment? Dedicate it to a single artwork?). We need technical skills (ideally in-house or readily available) to assess a digital artwork at the point of acquisition (Did the museum get what it paid for? Does all the equipment work?) and throughout its life.
Legacy of the Early Adopters
Those of us in the Early Majority category of museums are currently recognising and coming to grips with the preservation and stewardship issues of our digital art collections. (I predict the Late Majority will be following behind us in a few more years.) We are fortunate to have a significant body of thought and material generated by the Early Adopters to which we can refer. For example:
• The Guggenheim museum(9) (particularly conservator Joanna Phillips) taught us important ways of thinking about digital art (e.g. distinguishing its “identity” from its “iterations”).
• The Matters In Media Art project(10) (including the New Art Trust, Tate, MoMA, and SFMoMA), Tate’s Head of Conservation Pip Laurenson, and the Smithsonian’s Time-based Media Art Working Group(11) have given us clear guidelines and detailed standards to follow and a wide range of tools (forms, reports, etc.) to utilise.
• Software preservation projects have been developing open-source tools available to the public to support specific areas of digital preservation. These include Yale University Library’s “Emulation as a Service”(12) and Rhizome’s Webrecorder, enabling users to capture “high-fidelity, fully interactive copies of almost any website,”(13) and its ArtBase net art digital archive.
• Special interest groups like VoCA (Voices in Contemporary Art)(14), INCCA (International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art)(15), and the Electronic Media Group (EMG) of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC)(16) provide platforms for dialogue and sharing new developments in digital art stewardship.
Even with these rich resources at our disposal, changing practice to accommodate the preservation requirements of digital art remains complex for the average museum: tailoring template forms and reports to individual museums’ needs, examining and re-structuring workflows, buying-in or constructing preservation systems, and enhancing technical skills. Fortunately, the Early Adopters and their funders have stepped in to offer training and support.
Digital Stewardship Residencies
In 2013, America’s Library of Congress, in conjunction with the U.S. government agency Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), created the National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR) program. The NDSR aims “to build a dedicated community of professionals who will advance our nation’s capabilities in managing, preserving, and making accessible the digital record of human achievement.”(17) NDSR “bridge[s] the gap between existing, well developed classroom education and the need for more direct professional experience in the field” of digital archiving.(18) The program achieves this by funding the placement of trained digital archivists in projects across the United States for between nine months and one year.
NDSR residencies have been hosted at a wide range of organisations, including several museums, but they have not been focused on digital art. In 2016, the latest iteration of the program — NDSR Art — was created to address specifically “issues of digital preservation and stewardship in relation to the arts, with a particular focus on new media and arts information.”(19) Mia was selected as a host organisation for the first cohort of NDSR Art residents, allowing the museum to focus on improving the stewardship and preservation of our digital art collection, something staff had lacked the resources to achieve, despite recognising the need.(20)
NDSR Art’s direct impact is limited to eight organisations over the project’s three-year lifespan, but they, like the Early Adopters already mentioned, are dedicated to disseminating the learning from each residency project through papers, symposia and outreach. NDSR and NDSR Art have built bridges between the library, archive, digital preservation and museum sectors that will continue to support collaboration around digital art preservation for years to come.
Digital art stewardship in museums requires collaboration internally across multiple departments: Registration, Curatorial, Interactive Media, Exhibition Design, Collections documentation, and more. And, as we discovered during Mia’s NDSR Art project, most museums are relying on conservators (in-house or contracted) to take the lead in digital art care. As currently few conservators are specifically trained with a focus on digital art, many “objects” conservators (trained to work with more “traditional” media) are being co-opted to undertake this work. This requires conservators as well as museum staff to extend their skills to cover a wide range of digital technology and multimedia equipment.
Fortunately, training for digital art preservation is becoming more widespread. In 2018, New York University, which already had a long-standing M.A. in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation, launched a master’s degree program in Time-based Media Art Conservation. This program, “offering an overview course on time-based media technologies and their care in the first year of the program and advanced technological training during the second and third years of study,” (21) is the first of its kind in the United States.
For established conservators wishing to enhance their skills, workshops are now becoming available such as the recent “Documentation and Risk Assessment of Complex Time-based Media Works,” offered as part of the American Institute for Conservation’s 2019 annual conference. Though it was primarily aimed at conservators, I was fortunate to attend this workshop delivered by Mona Jimenez and Jeffrey Martin, both experts in the field. This was their first workshop on time-based media preservation. I expect more will follow.
Finally, workshops are being targeted at non-conservators, which is a boon to those organisations that (like Mia) do not have ready access to digital art conservators. MoMA, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, began offering annual workshops in 2017 as part of its five-year “Media Conservation Initiative”, which seeks to “advance new strategies in the field of time-based media art preservation and care.”(22) Their 2017 workshop advertised “an in-depth overview of the processes and workflows which can be implemented at collections without dedicated time-based media conservators.”(23) While the first museums accepted to these workshops were only those in the Early Maturity group holding larger time-based and digital media art collections, I am confident that similar workshops will soon be available to museums of any size collection.
The complexity of digital artworks, with their reliance on technology, places new burdens on the museums that collect them, particularly as that technology ages and ultimately fails. The challenges are significant and cannot be ignored if we intend to fulfill our mission to preserve these artworks for future audiences. Nevertheless, the community of artists, collectors, museums, conservators, and a wide range of museum professionals across the Innovation Adoption Lifecycle are working together to create a network of shared resources and collaboration in the United States and beyond.
Head of Collections Information Management, Minneapolis Institute of Art, United States
Endnotes and References
1. Minneapolis Institute of Art collections site, new.artsmia.org/art-artists/explore/
2. Rees, Arran. “What Does it Meme?: When social media becomes part of the museum collection.” https://museum-id.com/meme-social-media-becomes-part-museum-collection/ (accessed 29 May 2019)
3. Chan, Seb. (26 August 2013) Planetary: Collecting and Preserving Code as a Living Object. https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2013/08/26/planetary-collecting-and-preserving-code-as-a-living-object/ (accessed 28 May 2019)
4. Moore’s Law, or how overall processing power will double every two years, http://www.mooreslaw.org/ (accessed 29 May 2019]
5. Wikipedia, “Moore’s law”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law (accessed 27 May 2019)
6. Wikipedia, “Accelerating change”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerating_change (accessed 31 May 2019)
7. Wikipedia, “Diffusion of innovations”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations (accessed 31 May 2019)
8. Electronic Arts Intermix, http://www.eai.org/
9. Guggenheim, “Time-Based Media”, https://www.guggenheim.org/conservation/time-based-media
10. Matters in Media Art, http://mattersinmediaart.org/
11. Smithsonian Time-Based Media Working Group, https://www.si.edu/tbma/
12. Cummings, Mike. (13 Feb 2018) “Project revives old software, preserves ‘born-digital’ data”, Yale News, https://news.yale.edu/2018/02/13/project-revives-old-software-preserves-born-digital-data. See also Yale University Library, https://guides.library.yale.edu/digitalpreservation/services
13. Rhizome, http://rhizome.org/
14. Voices in Contemporary Art, http://www.voca.network/
15. International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art, https://www.incca.org/
16. Electronic Media Group of the American Institute for Conservation, https://www.culturalheritage.org/electronic-media-group
17. NDSR (National Digital Stewardship Residency), “About”, https://ndsr-program.org/about/ (accessed 28 May 2019)
18. National Digital Stewardship Residency | Art, “About” [http://ndsr-pma.arlisna.org/about/#over (accessed 28 May 2019)
20. For more information see this case study on Mia’s NDSR Art residency work: Lloyd-Baynes, Frances. “Preserving Mia’s Time-based and Digital Media Art”, https://new.artsmia.org/art-artists/research/case-studies/preserving-mias-time-based-and-digital-media-art/
21. NYU The Institute of Fine Arts, http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/fineart/conservation/time-based-media.htm
22. MoMA, “Media Conservation Initiative” https://www.mediaconservation.io/#new-page-2 (accessed 29 May 2019)
23. “Workshop: Getting Started – A Shared responsibility, Caring for Time-based Media Artworks in Collections (MOMA), AIC Blog (Archived).” Posted in: Conferences, Courses, Workshops & Seminars, Electronic Media conservation, December 27, 2016. http://www.conservators-converse.org/2016/12/workshop-getting-started-a-shared-responsibility-caring-for-time-based-media-artworks-in-collections-moma/ (accessed 30 May 2019)
First published in Museum-iD magazine (Issue 24, Sep/Oct 2019) / published online 7 February 2020