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Towards a Digital Preservation Policy For Museums

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The following is a guest post by Madeline Sheldon, a 2013 Junior Fellow with NDIIPP.

Earlier this week, I visited the Smithsonian Institution to attend a talk by Courtney Johnson, Director of The Dowse Art Museum in New Zealand. Energy oozed from Johnson; she exuded a confidence that was easy-going, without being arrogant. Her background as an art historian, web manager and a scrum master made her a professional force to admire. According to Johnson, a scrum master helps businesses make pertinent decisions about projects or plans as quickly and efficiently as possible. Doing so would allow the business to “fail faster and fail smarter,” eventually becoming more comfortable–and more confident–with any future choices they decide to make.

The British Museum. Photo: Madeline Sheldon

In her discussion, Johnson frankly admitted that she, as a new museum director, probably “makes mistakes” and “breaks the rules” when making decisions for The Dowse. For example, Johnson revealed that she often seeks out patron input for future displays, and allows their opinion to affect future installations.

To her, any failure or mistake she makes will be a future lesson or adaptation from which to learn. The confidence she places in her decisions keeps day to day business moving forward, never stagnant. Most importantly though, Johnson’s calculated failure keeps her actions transparent, and ensures that she personally advocates for the patrons she serves at The Dowse.

So what does Courtney Johnson’s discussion have to do with digital preservation? Directly, it doesn’t; however, her notion notion of scrum and failure stuck with me, as I continued with my research into digital preservation strategies. After hours of online searching, I recorded a significant jump in the number of published digital preservation strategies/policies from 2008 to the present day. (A digital preservation strategy/policy outlines an institution’s high-level plan for the preservation of digital objects,  e.g., born-digital/digitized documents, photos, and/or research data).

As far as I can tell, libraries and archives consistently remain at the forefront for the creation and implementation of digital preservation planning; however, museums (notably) maintain a distant third place.  The National Museum Australia’s Digital Preservation and Digitization Policy served as the one example and exception I could find.

Despite this, I did find exciting initiatives surrounding time-based media (e.g., video, animation, audio) from organizations, such as Rhizome, the Guggenheim, and the Tate. Based on these initiatives, it appears that museums are fully invested in the preservation of time-based media, but few have taken the next step towards compiling their experiences into a definite strategy or policy.

During my research, I noted that digital preservation strategies/policies vary considerably from each institution. As every organization must take into account the constraints or abilities of their resources, digital preservation plans do not necessarily follow an exact format. As more and more institutions publish preservation plans for digital content, it will become easier for repositories lacking documentation to build upon their work. With that said, continued collaboration within the museum community will be needed for future innovation.

While decisions regarding the preservation of sensitive work cannot be made lightly, museums might want to adopt the scrum approach to decision-making and become a more vocal presence in the world of digital preservation. Whatever the case, someone will need to take the next step. Who will it be?

Comments (2)

  1. Why is it breaking the rules to ask patrons about the content they want to see? We (humanity) are the owners and custodians of our own history – we should be invested in what we see at museums. Good on her I say!

  2. Seeing that museum’s are taking an active role in digital preservation is an encouraging sign! Hopefully the smaller house museums and local historical societies can learn from these larger institutions to grow their own practices. I look forward to seeing more content about bringing history and digital preservation together!

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