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A Museum Perspective on Digital Preservation

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The following is a guest post by Megan Forbes, Manager of Collection Information and Access, Museum of the Moving Image.

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Digital Library Federation’s 2011 Fall Forum, where I participated in a panel about data management, digital curation and digital preservation. I felt a bit like I was punching above my weight compared to the other members of the panel; at the Museum of the Moving Image, although digital media is a key component of our exhibiting, education and collecting activities, we’ve only recently started the process of figuring out what to do with all this stuff in the long term.

The Museum of the Moving Image, by t_a_i_s, on Flickr
The Museum of the Moving Image, by t_a_i_s, on Flickr

The issues of digital preservation and management are complicated for any museum that maintains a permanent collection.

When we accession objects – digital or otherwise – we are making a commitment to hold them in the public trust, to act both strategically and ethically regarding their stewardship and to provide public access to them. Issues of selection aside (not my area of expertise), these commitments require completely new standards for description and storage.

With the support of a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Museum of the Moving Image and its partners at the University of California, Berkeley and the Walker Art Center are working to change the way museums and other collecting organizations work together on software development, use and governance. Moving Image specifically is working to define what it means to acquire, catalog and manage information about digital objects within the context of the museum setting and in relation to those objects as part of a permanent collection.

To do this, we’re evaluating our current data structure standards for museum activities such as acquisition, cataloging and conservation and then supplementing them with elements from standards focus on digital and variable media, such as those developed by DOCAM, Electronic Arts Intermix and the Variable Media Network. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by how little we need to stretch our existing standards to accommodate these new fields.

Museum of the Moving Image: The Tyrell Building from Blade Runner and a puppet from The Exorcist, by muckster, on Flickr
Museum of the Moving Image: The Tyrell Building from Blade Runner and a puppet from The Exorcist, by muckster, on Flickr

The storage question is proving to be much thornier. Here at Moving Image, we just wrapped up a multi-year, multi-million dollar renovation and expansion project, which included a brand-new collections storage facility with state-of-the-art temperature and humidity controls.

Our paper materials will be happy there; unfortunately, our video games could not care less. Agreeing to take care of digital objects in perpetuity means shifting our attention from materials that we have the ability to stabilize to materials for which there is no stable state that lasts longer than a few years.

Our work on the software development project has shown us that museums are becoming more amenable to giving over the job of storing and maintaining digital data to outside vendors with hosted solutions. While that is certainly one option for digital stewardship, the model I would most like to see is one of collaboration, between museums and libraries, academic institutions and other organizations that have developed more mature strategies for digital preservation and access.

Museums, libraries, archives and other related cultural organizations are adept at describing how they are unique and different from one another, essentially taking the silo approach. If instead, we can focus on the ways in which we are alike, we can bring together institutions grappling with similar issues and develop a model for sharing knowledge, resources and experiences in order to create solutions to our common problems.

Comments (6)

  1. I’ve seen a lot of discussion about Digital Collections and archiving and I always get the same feeling –

    What’s the big deal?

    I look at it with the knowledge that once it’s gone digital, it’s much easier to work with, and if it were born digital, it’s easier still. Yes, you’ve got to change the storage medium and perhaps come up with some funky formatting, but that’s no different than suddenly discovering that the boxes you packed everything in were slowly destroying the artifacts held inside. Yes, it’s a Sisyphusian task, but I really don’t believe it’s as difficult as many make it seem. Expensive? Yes, but not that difficult.

    There is also an advantage in having to upgrade/update/upend your digital collection to new mediums every few years. It provides another form of storage, increasing the likelihood of that piece having long-term survival. Redundancy is the best form of preservation, and having different formats, which may become more difficult to read, but I doubt CDs drives will be impossible to get even 50 years in the future.

    Maybe I’ve been working at a COmputer Museum too long, though…

    • A big issue that separates caring for digital versus analog collections, to my mind, is that we have had many decades of experience working with the former and much less time with the latter. Analog–paper and other tangible media–is also fairly stable, both in its durability and in our ability to interpret it without using machine intermediaries. Setting up a management infrastructure for digital collections is eminently doable–but most have to work with comparatively limited curatorial experience and to worry about migrating data into an uncertain technological future.

  2. While it is certainly true that archivists and conservators have had much less experience and time dealing with digital assets, one cannot ignore that entire professions (namely Information Technology / Information Systems, etc) have been tasked with persisting data for decades at this point. It’s the involvement of capable technologists that will help finally usher museums into the digital age.

    I do not share, however, the same optimistic view of outsourcing digital storage and related pursuits. If you’re institution does not have it in-house, the assets don’t really exist! (That’s the policy at George Eastman House) and if your institution is not making digital preservation a core competency in the same way we’ve made the web a core competency over the last few decades, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

    That’s not to say you can’t mitigate the cost of backups by diversifying your storage across *some* third-parties, provided you’re regularly auditing your ability to restore from third-party storage.

    Great post!

    Ryan Donahue
    Manager of Information Systems
    George Eastman House

  3. A tangential question for Megan, if she’s reading. Your museum is my son’s favorite museum ever (he wants to move to Queens just to be nearer), and his favorite section of the museum is the vintage video game section. Since you mentioned the video games in your post, is your long-term preservation goal for these games to actually preserve the games and the systems in working condition or are you looking more at preserving the game software in some way so they can be played on some other way – maybe with a game system simulator?

  4. Susan,

    Thanks for the great question – and the compliment! Museum of the Moving Image is currently working on revisions to both our collecting policy for born-digital materials and our long-term preservation strategies for video games (console, arcade, computer- and web-based).

    Because playing the game in its original medium is such an integral part of the experience, our primary goal is to maintain our original media as long as possible. Of course, this is easier with early machines, such as the Death Race arcade game, which are often more mechanical than digital.

    We are also preparing for the day when we just can’t get the PlayStation III or Atari 2600 cartridges to work. To mitigate that eventual loss, we are turning to emulations and simulations that will recreate as faithfully as possible the original experience. Selecting which games and platforms will receive this level of care is a joint project between the collections and curatorial staff at the museum.

  5. Megan,

    Thanks so much for your answer. It sounds like you have a good approach to a very difficult issue.

    I asked because, as you noted, playing the game on the original media is what my kids (ages 9 & 13) find so wonderful, but to me it seems an impossible task to keep these up. We’re glad to know that you are thinking about both ends – the games and their platforms.

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