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At the Museum: An Interview with Marla Misunas (and Friends) of SFMOMA, Pt. Two

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We are continuing the previous interview with Marla Misunas of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, this time including two of her colleagues:  Layna White, Head of Collections Information and Access at SFMOMA, and Mark Hellar, consultant and owner of Hellar Studios LLC. Mark is currently working on new media conservation initiatives at SFMOMA, including the conservation and care of their software-based artworks. In this installment, we talk about some of the specific collections at SFMOMA, including software-based artwork and some of the preservation challenges involved.

Sue: Could you tell us a bit about the “Explore Modern Art Project” at SFMOMA, and how this has helped encourage engagement with visitors?

Screenshot of Artscope tool.
Screenshot of Artscope tool.

Marla:  Explore Modern Art is our digital online collection where we feature nearly 11,000 works—roughly one third of our entire collection so far, and about 7,500 with images.

In the “old” museum, visitors could check our website to see where things were on view in our building.  Currently, while the museum is closed, we have a lot of exhibition activity going on elsewhere. Together with staff on the IT team and the web team, we’ve come up with a way to show where artwork that’s part of our “On the Go” program is on view.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  In reality, it takes a lot of coordination between the registrars, art handlers, exhibition staff, the database and the website. We make sure our visitors have the most up-to-date information.

Sue:  And, within that, your “Artscope” tool is a fascinating way to browse individual items!

Marla:  Artscope provides website visitors with the opportunity to discover art through purely visual means. We tried to come up with a completely non-thematic, non-story-telling way of displaying the images; and the only order they have on the screen is the order in which they were acquired into the collection. This is a purposefully non-art historical sort of arrangement, meant to foster connections you might never have thought to look for in a search.

The design was done by Stamen, and the SFMOMA team was made up of staff from the Collections Information and Access department, Interactive Educational Technologies, the web team and IT.

Sue: I’m sure many readers of The Signal would be interested in the “Matters in Media Art” project, focusing on the preservation of time-based media art.

Marla:  Matters in Media Art is a wonderful, collaborative project between the New Art Trust (NAT), SFMOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Tate in Britain.

The Trust holds an outstanding collection of media art and, working together with prominent museums which also have significant media arts holdings, they sponsored a sort of laboratory or think tank to deal with issues of preservation and exhibition for time-based art. Over the course of several years and phases, the group came together to work out common “best practices” for preservation, acquisition and loans of often very complex works of media art. The goal was not only to create documents and procedures to facilitate loans of art between the Trust and the partner museums, but to expand on that knowledge to the benefit of other museums and organizations that would be acquiring, exhibiting, and preserving media art. (More project information is available on the Tate site.)

Sue:  Could you tell us a bit about your system for organizing and storing your digital images at SFMOMA?

Layna:  Two important programs help give some shape to this active landscape: a digital art server and digital asset management system.  Our digital art server supports the long-term care, access and display, and understanding of digital or new media artworks.  Our digital asset management system supports our thinking and actions around easy, reliable access to assets related to artworks and actions surrounding them.

Sue:  Could you provide an example of the more unique needs involved in exhibiting and preserving time-based media artwork in your collection?

Layna:  Consider Gerard Byrne’s Subject, a three-channel video installation with sound and text in the museum’s collection. When the artwork is installed, three monitors display the videos, with sequencing of the reenactments randomized on each.  Viewers move from monitor to monitor to fully experience the installed work.

Viewing Gerard Byrne’s Subject at SFMOMA. Photo by Andria Lo
Viewing Gerard Byrne’s Subject at SFMOMA. Photo by Andria Lo

In acquiring Subject, the museum received from the artist high definition files of the videos and the script for randomizing playback.  Master and submaster files, and information related to understanding and maintaining those files, are stored in the museum’s internal, limited-access digital art server.

Preservation activities around digital or new media works like Subject are tied to using the works.  For museums, this includes installing and exhibiting works over time and in different situations.  Our digital art server is architected and managed with use foregrounded – for example, through ready access to a growing body of information authored and collected around the work.  The artwork, its files, our digital art server, and our stewardship practices are cared for by an interdepartmental team, which includes staff in curatorial, conservation, registration, exhibitions, IT and collections information.

Dozens of images document views of the artwork as installed in this particular instance.  Subject appears in images taken of public events happening within the exhibition’s spaces – such as the opening reception and docent tours of Stage Presence – and may help us understand how visitors interacted with the work at the time and within that space.  Image, audio and video files related to the artwork and the artist, as well as data about those files, are stored in our internal, broad-access digital asset management system, and our production and management practices are informed by community and industry guidelines.

Sue:  Could you clarify the difference between video and software-based art?

Mark:  I think a primary critical difference is that you want video to always look the same way and you want to preserve the quality of it from the time it was produced. In terms of software, you may have to migrate the program to modern components in order to keep it running. In doing this however you must honor the artists’ intention.

Sue: Could you give us a brief overview of the SFMOMA preservation strategy for this type of artwork?

Mark:  In 2009 SFMOMA took on the preservation of two technologically demanding, web-based works of art. This research was supported by the New Art Trust (NAT).

The first work, Agent Ruby, was created by Lynn Hershman Leeson, one of the pioneers of media and conceptual art and based in San Francisco. Hershman’s work features a custom-made code of artificial intelligence that is embodied by an avatar that can talk back to visitors. This open concept of a learning environment and conversational structure mirrors an important step towards more participatory work. The second work, Julia Scher’s Predictive Engineering 2 (1998), accompanies a large media installation in our collection and mirrors the historic years of HTML programming in the 1990s.

How Agent Ruby works.
How Agent Ruby works.

Sue: What are some of the unique preservation challenges for Agent Ruby?

Mark: There were some interesting aspects for preserving Agent Ruby. The primary one was that she had, and continues to be, connected the internet. To ensure continued operation we had to upgrade the operating system and re-compile the source code in the latest version of the Java language. Much of this was driven by security and stability concerns.  In addition to the core program, which was written in the Java language, there was a network of software components that all worked together (see diagram) which Ruby needed to run.

Sue:  What is your general thinking about long term preservation of digital items in museums?

Layna:  I’m interested in exploring what it is about artworks that we’re looking to carry forward into the future.  For digital or new media works, the master files are critical to carry forward of course; but the shape of what constitutes aboutness for a work is open, or can be open, given the potentially open-endedness of responses, experiences, understandings of the work as it is installed and exhibited over time, some of which may be captured in the types of related images, audio and video files noted above.

Sue:  What are the future goals for SFMOMA and the collections?

Marla:  All of our efforts at present are devoted to bringing new and wonderful images and information to our public for the grand opening in 2016. Our gallery space will double, and public spaces will increase by a factor of six.

Information overload can be overwhelming.  The public relies on museums and libraries to ground us with authoritative information, and ways to sort through it. Thanks for this opportunity to tell our story!

(For a related discussion about preserving digital and software-based artworks and activities at SFMOMA and other museums, see Kate Murray’s recent post for The Signal.)


  1. I think a primary critical difference is that you want video to always look the same way and you want to preserve the quality of it from the time it was produced. In terms of software, you may have to migrate the program to modern components in order to keep it running. In doing this however you must honor the artists’ intention.

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