Why things fail and why it matters: some challenges for digital collecting today – Part 2

August 16, 2023

In the first post in this blog series, I discussed some of the challenges facing museums in activating born-digital art and design objects, and the problems that obsolescence (the process of becoming out of date) and technological failure pose for the longevity of these objects. In this follow-up post, I continue by exploring how equipment malfunction and the question of replacement parts is as much a curatorial challenge as a conservation one. I also consider possible strategies for postponing – and potentially embracing – failure in permanent collections.

Who decides what can and cannot be replaced?

Considering what can or cannot be replaced presents more than technical problems for museum staff. To explore this, let’s take the more “simple” case of what happens when a screen breaks. With Ernest Edmonds’ Shaping Form, the LCD screen is both functionally and conceptually integral to the artwork, but is currently presenting non-critical functionality errors. And whilst the artist has allowed us to replace it with a like-for-like model when needed, available screens of a similar size and format are now touchscreen. This development could not necessarily have been anticipated when the artwork was made in 2007, but it also demonstrates how, whilst replacing components might technically be possible, it cannot always meet the artist’s or curator’s original specification. Replacing the screen with a touchscreen model would not only bring the work out of joint with its original time; it would also not fit within the existing artist-made acrylic frame, which was identified a critical part of the artwork. In this case, the key qualities of the work will need to be revisited and re-negotiated to ensure the artwork’s continued functionality into the future.

Shaping Form 14/5/2007, by Ernest Edmonds, 2007. Museum no. E.294:1-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By contrast, with Casey Reas’ Process 18, the artwork is considered the software file alone. Whilst it has been running on display on an LCD screen since 2012, this is not deemed significant to the artwork. But with more historical distance, the LCD screen might be considered important to locating the work in its time period, and for conveying the specific visual qualities of the artwork as intended by Reas.

Process 18 (Software 3), by Casey Reas, 2010, USA. Museum no. E.297:1-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Process 18 (Software 3) on display on an LCD screen outside the Learning Centre

Malfunction and equipment obsolescence are therefore not only a problem for collections care and management. They also present curatorial challenges around how to identify the key properties of an artwork, and whether this can be disconnected from the works’ period-specific technical environment – it’s compatible computing hardware, software, and display equipment. Because for digital design objects, including mobile apps, the hardware-software relationship is often integral to communicating the experience of design. For example, to run a mobile app through a simulated programme on the computer would misrepresent the user experience, design intention and context of use for the app. But even running an app on a newer smartphone might fail to capture the original properties of the interface design and user experience. And so, even if conservation strategies are technically feasible, these are not always appropriate.

For now, the Flappy Bird mobile gaming application runs on a period-specific mobile phone that accurately captures the design and experience of the game. Museum no. CD.27-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Can failure be postponed?

What I’ve learnt from studying these works is that unlike many museum objects, such as light-sensitive works on paper, display can be a key strategy for postponing the deterioration of digital objects. A copy of Process 18 has been on display in the V&A Learning Centre since 2012 and is kept “alive” on its own compatible period-specific computer, thanks to the continual care and monitoring by the Visitor Technology team, who are responsible for the museum’s digital displays.

So where public access in the present-day is usually assessed against the need for futureproofing for long-term care, digital objects turn established collections care conventions on their head. The digital object must be activated through display, and run via computing equipment, to be seen and understood – and to be kept alive for longer. And yet, continual display isn’t always possible or desirable. The size of the V&A’s collections vastly exceeds the capacity for display in the museum halls, whilst the continual running of equipment for display also accelerates failure through wear and tear. This may speed up the object’s failure if sourcing replacement compatible equipment isn’t possible.

How else can digital objects survive?

Given the short lifespan of this equipment, when set against museums’ ambitions for collections care in perpetuity, digital object failure will relentlessly repeat. So how can museums capture the cultural significance of 21st-century digital design into the future? Preventing total loss requires a proactive approach to conservation, involving regular format migrating, reinterpreting and rewriting the object – where this is technically possible and curatorially desirable. But this approach is resource-intensive and unsustainable for most museums. Another recommended approach is for a more collaborative and open stewardship model with communities beyond museum conservators. This approach runs counter to the way museums have understood ownership and care to date, and would require significant policy changes.

But in facing failure, it is not only care models but the museum “object” itself being reconsidered. With an increasing recognition of the value of documentation, many curators are collecting around the object via development materials, descriptive accounts and video documentation of use. As well as supporting preservation, this documentation can often prove equally (if not more) suitable for communicating user experience in a museum gallery.

(Left to right:) A demonstration video of the app WeChat is displayed in the gallery. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; WeChat Demonstration Video, Tencent Technology (Shenzhen) Company Limited, 2016, China. Museum no. CD.5-2023. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Design development sketches of puppy dog WeChat sticker, 2015 – 16, Tencent Technology (Shenzhen) Company Limited, China. Museum no. CD.300-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Is there a place for failure?

The above examples demonstrate how object failure presents an opportunity to reconceptualise the understanding and treatment of museum objects, because as I’ve suggested in this post and Part 1, the threat of failure is not only a preservation challenge, but also a curatorial one. But I’m specifically interested in what role failure itself might play in collecting, programming and collections interpretation. This is not to relieve museums of their duty to care for objects, but instead to ask what “afterlife” dead objects might have. Could failure itself be captured to highlight the social significance of technological change? Might the failed museum object articulate its own design histories by standing in for planned obsolescence and the dangers of creating with digital platforms, or would the future museum visitor’s experience be only boredom and frustration? These are just some of the questions I’ll be considering as I continue to explore what happens after failure.

Speculative preservation object: Casey Reas’ Process 18 stored on an archival grade CD. Whilst the CD may be guaranteed for decades, the CD player is not. CD for Process 18 (Software 3), by Casey Reas, 2010, USA. Museum no. E.297:10-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The first born-digital works were acquired as part of the Computer Art collection. Today, digital collecting is happening across curatorial departments and in increasingly complex forms. Find out more about the V&A’s Digital Art and Design collections.

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