It’s World Digital Preservation Day: what are we doing in Design and Digital?

November 2, 2023

It’s World Digital Preservation Day, hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition, and their theme this year is ‘Digital Preservation: A Concerted Effort’. This is a day to celebrate the work of the dynamic and collaborative digital preservation community across the world.

Here at the V&A digital art and design have been part of the museum’s collections in one form or another for more than fifty years. Concerted effort was needed at the start to make the case for what was then computer art’s place within a wider collection of fine and decorative arts and design. Today this concerted effort has pivoted to questions of care and stewardship of the increasingly complex born-digital and hybrid objects featured within our collections.

Collecting digital art and design is always a collaborative and because it invariably pushes at the edges of what museums are good at it also, brilliantly, means working with others. Research and scholarship are essential to pushing us forward, and we are fortunate to have two embedded PhD students working with us in the Design and Digital Section. Their expertise is vital in furthering understanding of what it takes to care for our objects, as is that of the wider digital preservation community as we continue to seek new ways to showcase digital creativity today and into the future.

A collaborative synergy is materialised in visual form in images from Patric Prince’s ‘Portrait Virus’ event, 29 October – 1 November 1992, where artists collaborated to photograph attendees, shared the images and edited them in different ways. Museum no. E.987:4-2008 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Katherine Mitchell

Today I want to celebrate one important form of collaboration happening across the V&A: researcher-institution collaborations. I’ve been an embedded PhD researcher in Design and Digital curatorial team for the past couple of years. I work on digital collections care, which means I continually operate at the intersections of academic research and museum practice, and curatorial and preservation concerns. And, and as an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Researcher, collaboration is quite literally in the name.

 My research addresses important issues facing contemporary museums collecting digital objects: it asks how/why these break down in museums’ care, and aims to provide insight into how digital objects can be sustained in museum collections. For this, I use the V&A’s first software-based artworks as case studies to ground the more speculative aspects of my research. By thinking with these objects, I’m able to explore different registers of breakdown, and reflect on possible stewardship models, representation and interpretation after failure.

But this is not only thinking with objects, but with people, and during my time I’ve been lucky enough to work with colleagues across the museum on several related projects. For me, embedded research repositions academic study from that of individual enterprise to being part of a social network of care that transcends individual projects and efforts and erodes any curatorial-conservation distinctions. Delving into the history of digital collecting at the V&A has revealed to me the always-collaborative nature of collecting and collections care. It’s made clear that, for digital objects to survive into the future, what’s needed is the active preservation of knowledge, skills and relations, both inside and outside the museum.

Anna Mladentseva

It has been a little over six months since I have officially become embedded in the V&A as a doctoral researcher, working on the conservation of software-based art and design through the lens of their various infrastructures. As someone who works across two teams, the design and digital curatorial section and books, paper and photographs conservation, collaboration has been a key element of my time here.

Indeed, as Katherine points out, institutions ought to think about—and are, in fact, already thinking about—the active preservation of knowledge, skills and relations both within and beyond the museum in order to actively preserve the “object” itself. Overall, collaboration is essential in this agenda. But collaboration is not easy—by working across teams, I often notice differences that give rise to particular tensions that manifest in both research and practice. These differences may be as banal as teams operating within different time scales, which may introduce additional frictions, delays and ruptures in collaboration. But they may also be more profound than that, such as potential differences in values and aspirations.

In thinking of digital preservation as a concerted effort, I would like to urge institutions, professionals, researchers and other relevant actors to take a moment to reflect on the heterogeneity of this broader community. World Digital Preservation Day is, undoubtedly, a moment to celebrate this heterogeneity, but also to think critically about the challenges that this may bring in hopes of changing our practice for the better.

Some final thoughts…

Digital preservation requires multiple voices and approaches, and can only be done collaboratively. It’s also an ongoing task that’s not limited to one day per year. Today is a day for celebrating the fantastic efforts and achievements of colleagues across museums, libraries and archives who make up the digital preservation community, and you can read about some of this great work. We look forward to learning from colleagues as we continue in our efforts to preserve our digital collections.

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