A history of collecting digital objects at the V&A

Digital objects have been created since the mid-20th century, but what we understand a digital object to be has changed over time. A 'digital' object can be many things, including a work on paper created using digital tools, a computer that connects to digital networks, or software, like an app. This timeline traces the history of digital collecting at the V&A from the earliest acquisitions of computer art in 1969 to the complex digital works in the collection today.

1969 – 90: digital art on paper and consumer electronics

The first examples of digital objects in the collection were acquired in 1969 by the Circulation Department, which had a more flexible remit for collecting experimental works, like digital art. These works came from the ground-breaking Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition, the first exhibition in the UK to examine the relationship between art and technology, which was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London in 1968.

After the Circulation Department was disbanded in 1977, the objects became part of the Prints, Drawings and Paintings collection. During this time, digital artworks were primarily collected as examples of print, with their materiality, rather than their digital production processes, determining their suitability for acquisition. Silkscreen prints were often acquired as substitutes for their digitally-produced counterparts, such as Manfred Mohr's P-021 (1970 – 76) and Vera Molnar's piece from Hommage à Bartók (1978). Although originally created as plotter drawings (a type of artwork where a machine called a 'plotter' reads a digital file and mechanically draws the image with a pen), both pieces were collected as silkscreen prints due, in part, to the technical limitations in reproducing plotter drawings, but also because artworks created by computers were approached, at this time, with scepticism by curators. To get the works into the collection via the Prints and Drawings Department, early works of computer art were collected as just that – prints and drawings.

P-021, screenprint from Scratch Code series, by Manfred Mohr, 1070 – 76. Museum no. E.144-1978. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum no. E.144-1978. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Circulation Department also led the way in collecting the first examples of what we would now call hybrid digital objects, or objects which require both physical and digital components to work. In 1973, the department collected a Brionvega portable radio from 1964 and a pair of Wharfedale Isodynamic headphones, the latter seen as a breakthrough in high-quality audio reproduction. The Furniture and Woodworking Department also collected hybrid digital objects. This was because late 20th-century radios and computers were understood as part of a longer lineage of late-19th and early 20th-century home electronics, like large wood-panelled radios. The first personal computer in the V&A's collection was acquired by the Woodworking Department in 1984, an 'Apricot' 256K, made by A.C.T. Britain the same year.

Brionvega TS502, portable radio, designed by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper, made by Brionvega, 1964, Milan, Italy. Museum no. CIRC.502-1973. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1990s and 2000s: physical examples of digital design

Early works of digital design in the museum's collection were also collected as works on paper. In 1999, a paper print of a computer aided design (CAD) drawing for Tom Dixon's Pylon Chair was acquired by the museum's Designs section, which collected works that show the process of an object's creation, like architectural drawings or blueprints. At the time, the curator justified the acquisition of the work by noting that the print is 'an early example of 2D Computer Aided Design', a process that was not widely adopted until the 1990s. Although today we might seek to acquire the digital CAD file, in 1999, the paper copy was considered a sufficient representation of the digital production process of the Pylon Chair.

Design for Pylon Chair, computer-aided design (2D CAD) printout, Tom Dixon, 1991, Britain. Museum no. E.454-1999. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

For other departments collecting digital objects early on, there was a similar focus on the physicality of the work. Already a pioneer in collecting hybrid digital objects, the Woodworking and Furniture Department acquired an iMac G3 personal computer in 2008. When the iMac G3 was collected, the department's emphasis was on the object's materiality and aesthetics, rather than its software capabilities or function. The curator positioned the iMac within a history of plastic consumer products, with its 'colourful' hardware revolutionising 'the aesthetics of computers at the end of the 1990s'. However, the donor of the iMac, who was a professor of architecture, told the curators he had bought the computer not for its look, but because of its capability to run graphics software. At the time no ephemera, such as how-to guides or advertisements related to the graphics software was collected – the only record we have of its importance in terms of processing graphics software is the statement from the donor. Today, with more recent acquisitions, the museum looks to collect additional related material to help contextualise the digital object.

iMac G3 personal computer, designed by Jonathan Ive for Apple Inc, 1998, manufactured by Apple Inc, 1998 – 99, United States. Museum no. W.29:1 to 4-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 2010s: shifting attitudes, shifting materials

In the 2010s, there was a shift from framing digital art as prints to a focus on the computational tools by which they were made. Although still a printed output, three Vera Molnar pieces acquired in 2011 are described as 'plotter drawing [s]', emphasising their digital production. In a written piece accompanying the acquisition, the curator wrote that Molnar was 'one of the first fine artists to adopt the use of computers in her practice' and that 'Interruptions (1968) is one of a series of her earliest computer- generated images, and thus enables the V&A to better illustrate the first use of computers by one of the most significant artists in this medium'.

'Interruptions', plotter drawing, by Vera Molnar, 1969, Paris, France. Museum no. E.269-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By this time, art with entirely digital components was being acquired, with curators and artists drawing attention to the significance of the software itself. For example, Casey Reas' Process 18 (Software 3) was acquired into the digital art collection in 2010 primarily as the software. A set of prints and two CDs were also acquired, but these were part of the object's presentation and preservation strategy, rather than the main focus of the acquisition. In a shift away from physical materiality, Reas stated that the computer hardware was 'incidental' and 'not part of the artwork itself'. The focus on the software component of the work is reflected in the acquisition justification, which recognises the importance of the programming language 'Processing', which was 'used by many contemporary digital artists, designers and students'.

In 2018, the museum acquired another Apple computer, an Apple II, that was collected within the Design, Architecture and Digital Department. Alongside the computer itself, the museum acquired a floppy disk drive, a monitor, the program VisiCalc (an early spreadsheet application) and an original 1977 print advertisement for the computer. The collection of these additional materials captures the history of how the computer was used in the home and in the workplace. Not only was the Apple II the first commercially successful portable computer, but it signalled the 'convergence of home and office computing', wrote the acquiring curator, with the VisiCalc program essential to the success of the product. Because the Apple II was significant for the way in which it was used, as well as its hardware design, the object would have less meaning if only the physical computer had been acquired. The acquisition of the Apple II, ten years after the iMac G3, shows how curators consider the collection of additional objects and documentation as essential to fully convey and interpret the object's function, social and technological significance.

Advertisement for the Apple II computer, in Scientific American, 1977, United States. Museum no. CD.46-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The expanded approach to collecting the Apple II is also reflected in collecting practices for entirely digital objects, such as the app WeChat. WeChat was collected by the museum in 2017 because it was 'one of the largest and fastest growing social media platforms in the world' and because of its pervasiveness within China for mediating administrative, social and economic tasks. The multi-functionality of the app, with developers creating apps that 'plug-in' directly to WeChat without the user needing to switch to other applications, was its key design innovation.

The introduction of WeChat stickers (or animated GIFs) to convey emotions, something now common in apps like Telegram and WhatsApp, was also new at the time. When WeChat was collected, the social media platform itself was considered the primary digital object under acquisition. However, the challenge remained: how to portray the function and context of use for WeChat in a way that demonstrated the design innovations of the app? The solution was to collect not only WeChat's .apk file (the native file format for Android applications), but also a three-minute demonstration video of the app in use that was later acquired as an object in its own right. The demonstration video illustrates a context of use for the application, showing how a user might use the app to interact with the world. Other related acquisitions included GIF stickers and sketches of Bubble Pup, a cartoon dog mascot of the app, and Mon Mon, an electronic toy that uses WeChat to send messages between users. These additional materials capture the function and experience of WeChat in a way that simply acquiring the .apk file would not have been able to portray.

The 2020s and beyond: complex, born-digital art and design

In 2019, the Design, Architecture and Digital Department explicitly included acquiring digital objects as part of their collecting goals. Digital objects reflect the Department's interest in collecting works that speak to the role of design in society, which is increasingly digital. In 2020, the museum's digital art collection, previously part of Prints and Drawings, merged with the Design and Digital section. Although curators had been working to collect digital objects before 2019, merging the collections has put curators with specialities in digital design and digital art in closer contact. They now work together to collect complex, born-digital works, such as Blacktransair.com (I CANT REMEMBER A TIME I DIDNT NEED YOU) (2020) by Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. A web-based game artwork, the piece was acquired as an offline version of the site, along with an installation guide and instructions for use. In addition to the game itself, the museum also acquired a set of digital assets that show Brathwaite-Shirley's process of creating the work in Blender, an open-source software used to create computer-generated imagery. As with Casey Reas' Process 18, modes of presentation for Blacktransair.com were discussed with the artist and it was decided that the preferred method of display would be through a vintage computer monitor. Thinking holistically about Blacktransair.com's acquisition, both as the piece itself and the additional assets, demonstrates a developed sensitivity to capturing aspects of the piece that allow it to be preserved and interpreted in the future.

Blacktransair.com / I CANT REMEMBER A TIME I DIDNT NEED YOU, videogame art work, by Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, 2020, London. Museum no. CD.3-2023. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There are now over 400 born-digital and hybrid objects in the V&A collection, under the stewardship of the Design and Digital section. However, Design and Digital is not the only museum team collecting born-digital and hybrid objects. Colleagues in Asia and Photography are also collecting digital creativity, and digital objects will continue to be an increasingly important focus for the museum as the material culture of our world becomes ever more digitised.

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Advertisement for the Apple II computer, in Scientific American, 1977, United States. Museum no. CD.46-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London