Blog Post

New Media (as art and as tools in museums)

In "The Rise and Fall of the Post-Photographic Museum," Peter Walsh argues that " helped give rise to an entirely new kind of art museum, the post-photographic museum" and that likewise we are now seeing the burgeoning of the post-internet museum. Among the changes present in the post-photographic museum were the hiring of museum based photographers to document museum work and reproduce images of artworks for sale (e.g. posters and postcards); the display of photographs among other art objects in exhibits; and the re-thinking of curatorial practice, which motivated a change from restoration (or the replication of a work's initial appearance) to conservation (which focused more on preserving the authenticity of the original, e.g. through techniques that expose and bring out rather than write-over original aspects).

For my purposes, rather than post-internet, I am thinking about the post-new media museum. My hypothesis is two-pronged: 1) the exhibition and inclusion of digital and internet based art requires and enables new modes of display/exhibition, interpretation, and conservation; 2) the incorporation of these new technologies into museums alters the functioning and the nature of museums.

Walsh identifies the pre-photographic museums as those existing before the advent of photography, and post-photographic museums as those that included photography into their original plans. We might think of pre-new media museums as those which are (or are not) now trying to integrate new technologies and to "update" their collections and work; and post-new media as museums for which new media is central (often identified as media-specific museums, e.g. The Museum of Pure Form, ARS Electronica).

Most interesting, so far, has been the readings and sources on conservation.

The Variable Media Initiative, a Guggenheim Museum project, seems to be near the forefront of new media conservation: "The Variable Media approach integrates the analysis of materials with the definition of an artwork independently from its medium, allowing the work to be translated once its current medium becomes obsolete. By identifying the works behaviors (contained, installed, performed, reproduced, etc.) and strategies (storage, emulation, migration, and reinterpretation), artists, conservators, and curators can advance the preservation of new-media art."*

From my understanding, these forms can be defined as follows:

  • storage (traditional method--maintaining climate control, etc.)
  • migration (moving to updated equipment; effect may change)
  • emulation (trying to maintain the effect while using potentially different kinds of objects)
  • reinterpretation (trying to replicate the artist's intent, without migrating or emulating)

...the Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage has added "reconstruction" to this list.

Some questions, then:

How do these techniques conflate and separate meaning; significance; form; medium, etc. in ways that might be specific to our time and the significance *we* see in works? A peer in one of my classes pointed out that many artists are interested now in making intentionally obselete art as a statement about ephemerality. Do migration and emulation necessarily over-write these intentions? How do "mechanically reproducible" works change our sensorium (see: Between Play and Politics); defy and invigorate the museum (see: Follow Through, ArtPort)? What do we think?

As far as museum tools, I've so far been thinking about efforts to change the digital archive and art historical vocabulary through folksonomies (see: Steve.Museum projects for examples); museums' efforts to display crowd-curated content (see: Click! and Your Show Here for examples), and what happens when we make digitlal and share museum resources (see: Steve Campbell on the reproduction of curatorial bias, etc.).

Are you working in or curious about: 1) the exhibition, interpretation and display of new media art or 2) new media tools in the museum? Any ideas about how new media has, is or will change museums? Also, if you're interested, here is some suggested reading in the HASTAC community.




Amy, you rightly note that some artists prefer their work to remain ephemeral, and that conventional museum practice runs the risk of saving that which was not meant to be saved. Have you heard of the Variable Media Questionnaire? It's now available as a free Web service, and is meant to address concerns like this.

I notice you have seem to have a Brown connection. As it happens, I was contacted by an intern last summer (I believe her name was Donna) who was studying the potential use of the Variable Media Questionnaire on a digital collection at Brown.


Thank you for writing, it is so exciting to hear from you! I read Death by Wall Label last week. I am just beggining to wrap my head around these issues, through writing and projects like the ones you have been fundamental in creating. Thank you for forwarding the link (I am still navigating the interface so if I have questions that are answered there please just let me know)!

I had been wondering whether the VMN was engaged in formal/informal conversation with other organizations, like the Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage (e.g. through events, a network, an overarching organization), and just read on the link you sent about Forging the Future initiative and Metaserver. I've been finding it difficult to track these projects (so far, in comparison to other slower and older projects which I am more used to) because they (like the art they track) are current, evolve quickly, and are documented largely on websites (which themselves turnover). Would you suggest any centralized websites, publications or hubs for finding up-to-date information about new media conservation, exhibition, etc.?

A few questions:

1) Integral to VMN's process is the evaluation of works on a case-by-case basis and the noted ephemerality and perpetual updating of this process, but do you think that answers might be generalized based on case studies and formalized into a publication or basic set of standards (or used to formally ammend conservation standards as they currently exist)? Is this already happening?

2) It also seems like these practices depend on what theories of meaning we accept. For example, if we follow the distinction some propose between meaning (what the author intends for the work) and significance (a work's interpretations which change over time), it might matter greatly who filled out the questionnaire and when for multi-author works (like you noted in Death by Wall Label) or works preserved in lieu of an artist or in consultation with one. Has VMN had difficulties with this?

There are a number of undergraduate and graduate fields that would be/are interested in these issues. Donna might have been inquiring for the Bell Gallery or through the Art History program or MCM here (where Mark Tribe is based)--I will check. 



Thanks for your questions. There are several online hubs for keeping up with variable media preservation. The Wikipedia article on New Media Art Preservation is not bad; the Forging the Future Web site includes a news feed of activities and news related to the variable media approach.

Regarding the generalization of case studies: I don't believe in a one-size-fits-all technical cure for obsolescence, but I do believe that we can all learn from each others' solutions. Toward that end we are planning a feature for a future release of the Variable Media Questionnaire that allows you to easily compare potential solutions for your work with those chosen by other artists or conservators. Think of it as the equivalent of YouTube's Related Videos feature, except that it suggests strategies that have been applied to similar works.

There are two other options for sharing information outside of the Questionnaire itself. Richard Rinehart created an XML standard for this purpose called the Media Art Notation System (MANS). And the Metaserver, which you alluded to, offers a protocol for automatically linking from a work in one collection database to related works from databases in other institutions.

Finally, although I hadn't heard of the distinction between "meaning" and "significance" as you framed those terms, you're quite right that our theories of meaning determine our preservation policies. There are indeed cases in which the author has changed her mind over time, or where experts disagree on a work's ideal future.

Formerly focused on the artist's intent more-or-less exclusively, the variable media paradigm now takes a "both/and" approach to such cases, soliciting all opinions on a work from every source: artist, estate, conservator, curator, technician, historian, even a lay gallerygoer. It's then up to the preservationist to decide which of these voices matter the most in deciding how to translate a work from one installation to the next.

Hope this helps!


Jon, thank you so much for your response! It is very helpful on all fronts.