i can has mewseum (Or, Should Your Museum Acquire A LoLCat?)

This post is a joke. Or at least, it started as one. A week or so ago, when everyone was busy meowbify-ing their collections, Oonagh Murphy pondered whether any museums had a curator of cats. Not too long after, my own thoughts turned to the question of whether any museums had acquired a LoLCat.

At first blush, it might seem like a frivolous inquiry. Why would photographs of cats overwritten with bad language or any other Internet meme be worth preserving in a museum collection?

But the idea is actually less silly than it might immediately appear. According to Wikipedia, a meme:

is “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.

Thus LoLCats or Rickrolling (or even Hey Girl – the Museum Edition) are cultural units, through which the ideas of Internet culture are spread. After all, there is even a LoLCat Bible Translation Project, and Ryan Goslings abound for us geeky girls.

Mike Rugnetta from PBS Arts recently asked Are LOLCats and Internet Memes Art?, drawing Leo Tolstoy, Aristotle and Warhol into his argument. He says:

But wait? People are creating images and sharing them with strangers for the purposes of communicating their personal experiences? That, my friends, is art plain and simple…What’s exciting is that this is a body of work produced collaboratively by tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, across the globe. Anyone can get involved. That’s something we’ve never seen before. It’s pretty astounding.

Whether you agree that Internet memes are art or not, it is still worth asking whether these collaboratively-created cultural units belong in a museum. I think they do, but I decided to call on someone with more expertise than my own to think through these questions. So allow me to introduce Tom Woolley, New Media Curator at the UK National Media Museum. Here’s his perspective on the issue.

Tom Woolley

Hi Tom! Tell me a bit more about the Media Museum, and what your role as new media curator for the museum involves.
My job involves working on galleries and exhibitions, programming events and building the Museum’s collection. I’ve recently been working on the Life Online gallery – a new permanent space that explains the history of the internet and its impact. I also helped curate the Games Lounge gallery which is our videogames exhibition full of original arcade machines, consoles and emulated titles that lets visitors get hands-on with the history of digital games. I’m also currently working on the games events that form part of the upcoming Bradford Animation Festival.

As you know, today we’re talking about LoLCats and other Internet memes. Do you think LoLCats are cultural artefacts that belong in museum collections? Why/why not?
Yes, I think they are – the evolution of an internet meme is quite fascinating and is a valuable example of the type of media people consume in the early 21st century. LoLCats and other memes demonstrate how the internet has provided an international platform for people to publish their own material and potentially influence millions of others. Some people might argue that memes are just silly jokes that don’t deserve to be part of a museum collection but I think if we look back at ancient civilisations and find out what exact jokes amused the general population that would be deemed valuable information. Memes and online culture is also impacting the way we speak so they would be very interesting to research from a linguistic perspective too.

Although the Media Museum has an exhibition on Life Online which features LoLCats, you haven’t acquired any memes. Has that been a conscious choice?
Within the Life Online gallery we feature several screens that show a looping video of famous memes, viral hits and iconic moments of citizen journalism. The aim of the video wall is to illustrate the culture of the net alongside the rise of online video due to faster broadband speeds and the proliferation of digital video devices. The Museum is currently investigating digital video archiving and I hope to start acquiring memes and viral videos into the official collection in the future.

How complex would it be to acquire a meme? (I’m thinking about provenance, deciding on format etc.)
Each one would need to be treated separately and some would be far more complicated than others. For instance, something like the famous ‘Double Rainbow’ video has a clear single creator (Paul Vasquez) and with his permission we could acquire a copy of the digital video into the collection in the highest resolution possible. To illustrate the influence of the Double Rainbow meme it would then be ideal to collect other videos that echo the original and interviews with Mr Vasquez to provide a full story around its impact. Something like LoLCats is a bit more slippery to track down – I believe it started with the ‘O RLY?’ owl and grew from their across forums such as 4chan and Something Awful. Many of the images have been added by anonymous or now defunct users so it could be a thankless task trying to contact all the individuals. I think this is where an element of fair use would have to be applied and we create a copy without permission.

A few months ago, Seb Chan proposed that most museums won’t embrace digital as a core competency until they have significant born digital collections. What do you think about that idea?
I tend to agree – libraries have had a head start on born digital collecting and it’s something we’re playing catch-up on. We have a large collection of software and videogames on portable storage media such as floppy discs and cassette tapes that we urgently need to transfer to a secure digital archive. This then raises issues around operating systems, copyright infringement and emulation. But the best way to try and solve these issues is to roll our sleeves up and make a start collecting digital assets.

What other challenges accompany born digital or new media curation and acquisitions that I maybe haven’t thought of, or thought to ask about?
Emulation and interactive experiences is an interesting aspect. Within the Games Lounge we feature an emulation of Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum. We thought about playing the original tape on an original machine but this would have led to constant maintenance, serial crashing and someone having to physically load the game every morning. Instead we went down the route of using a Spectrum emulator on a Windows XP PC rewired to an original ZX Spectrum keyboard to provide a near-authentic and maintainable experience. Also, games, software and digital artworks that use live data raise lots of challenges – will it be possible to experience World of Warcraft in fifty years time when maybe all the players have left or all the servers are down? Capturing videos of player performance and fan-generated websites would be a good alternative.

Tom became the Museum’s first Curator of New Media in 2007. In 2010 he curated the Robbie Cooper: Immersion exhibition and the Games Lounge gallery. In 2008 he helped to establish the National Videogame Archive in partnership with Nottingham Trent University and in 2012 work was completed on Life Online, a new gallery dedicated to the story of the internet.

Now it’s your turn. Should museums be collecting LoLCats (or other Internet memes)? What sorts of museum collections do you think they would belong as part of? Art museums? Social history? Media? Whose responsibility should it be to capture these ephemeral cultural units.
And if your museum has acquired a LoLCat, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.

15 thoughts on “i can has mewseum (Or, Should Your Museum Acquire A LoLCat?)

  1. The thing is, memes are already being ‘collected’ and even ‘systematically researched’ – http://knowyourmeme.com/

    The internet is good at this already. And KYM is actually part of the Cheezburger media conglomerate (an interesting phenomenon in its own right!). So a meme owns the memes!

    KYM can get away with archiving and re-presenting memes that are NSFW in a way museums don’t. Not to say that they can’t – libraries, again, have notable archives of pornography – but that they make decisions to avoid controversy on the whole.

    1. I agree that the Internet is good at this; in fact, it is the ultimate environment for memes because it is their natural environment. But does that mean that museums should not be acquiring them too? KYM can do great research on memes, and systematically collect them, but isn’t part of the point of museum collections the way that they can be combined in new ways and with other things to make obvious different nuances? I suppose I’m thinking here about how and where memes can speak to other things, beyond the Internet. Museums do have other things in their collections that KYM would not.

      But maybe museums don’t need to be able to collect these things in order to do that. Maybe they just need to be able to access them in order to use them when appropriate? Does time and changing technology then become a greater problem with memes in the wild, or in the museum proper that has to look after the acquisition?

  2. Thanks for a fascinating post. I wonder if places like Know Your Meme, or more broadly the Cheezburger conglomerate, could be considered as museums without walls?

  3. Oh and re ZX Spectrum loading times etc – a large part of the ‘user experience’ of the ZX and especially the Commodore 64 *was* the long load times from cassette. And there were interesting ‘innovations’ in loading screen designs and ‘loaders’. In some cases, too, the pirated versions with ‘trainers’ and alternative boot loaders became the canonical versions – see the whole demoscene (http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/the80sareback/2009/12/the-demoscene/). We attempted to deal with this in a way in the 80s exhibition at Powerhouse – but didn’t really address the preservation aspects brought to the fore by the exhibition.

    This brings up a further question of ‘when does an object begin and end?’.

    1. I think it brings up a more interesting question: “How do you preserve a designed and manufactured product that is not an object but an experience?” That’s what games are really. They’re not objects in themselves, though they have objects that they correlate to. A game is an experience. What should we be trying to preserve, the objects (yes) or the experience? (also yes) At some point the objects destroy themselves, magnetic media and moving parts are the enemies of preservation. How do we preserve the experience separate from the object so that the real “product” of these designers can be shared for generations after the hardware breaks down?

      Just as conservators had to adapt to plastics and loads of other new materials over the years, some are going to have to come to the field with full knowledge of software development and electrical engineering.

  4. Thanks for a really interesting post and comments. It raises all sorts of questions re the role of museums, born digital collections and preservation. The impact of taking physical objects out of their original context for preservation is a debate that museums continue to have when acquiring objects and clearly crosses over into digital platforms. When the internet makes digital objects accessible via open networks what is the role of museums and how should they navigate this? In digital art circles there are debates about the loss of arts’ radical potential when digital material is taken into the gallery environment. I think Suse raises a valid idea, that museums’ should explore ways of accessing these items by alternative ways in order to make connections and interpretation. But perhaps museums and archives skills in documenting activity, processes or ideas will also play a huge role.

  5. Don’t museums already collect memes, memes like de stijl, manifest destiny and the big bang theory? Remember the term, “meme,” was coined in 1976 before most people ever heard of the internet (before it was actually called the “internet”, and I don’t know if Dawkins was aware of its existence at the time).

    I would think that adding internet “memes” would be more or less the same as trying to collect “modernist art” or “objects of historic significance” (to whom?). The question of how should be pretty much the same as what we’re already doing. It’s just a matter of how many museums deem online cultural expression worthy of collecting (it should be all of them, but obviously that’s taking some time). It’s not a matter of whether cultural exchanges happen online. It’s a matter of how many of us are paying attention to them. The other problem we have is in the preservation of these things, but I think the digital preservation folks have more to say about that than I do. There’s no reason why museums should not try to collect these things and there are plenty of reason why they should (all the same reasons they already collect everything else they collect).

    The core issue raised here is the same that’s been brought up before. Too many people are still trying to draw a clear line of distinction between on- and offline activities. Meanwhile, in actual every day life, the difference between the two becomes increasingly meaningless. It’s all just culture in the end.

    1. I agree Matt, but only to a point. Internet memes are only one form of meme, and it is all just culture. But I do think we need to draw these lines or speak to these specific issues/questions/examples right now, because as a sector or even as a society, we aren’t yet given the two equal measure. Acknowledging their differences now is important to make people aware of the questions that they bring up.

      There is also plenty of culture that has not been collected because at the time it wasn’t deemed valuable or because it was thought to be so common as to not need specific preservation, but that would be useful in hindsight (as Tom points out, knowing specific jokes and cultural touch points is valuable for historians).

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