Cooperative conservation? On Cooper-Hewitt’s acquisition of a ‘living object’

On 27 August, the Cooper-Hewitt made public news of an interesting acquisition: its first piece of code. If you haven’t yet heard about the acquisition, let me fill you in with the briefest of details: Planetary is an iPad app. The Museum has acquired the app itself, and its source code. In itself, this feels important; an attempt made to combat the rushing waters of time that seek to drive apart software and the hardware that once supported it by holding onto at least the record of what was; the thought processes behind it. But that’s just the beginning…

Where things get compelling for me is what the Cooper-Hewitt has done with that code. They’ve made it public, releasing the source code on GitHub under an open source license, and putting the graphical assets online under a Creative Commons (non-commercial) license. In so doing, the Museum is treating the acquisition as a kind of ‘living object’. As Clive Thompson puts it:

Geeks worldwide can then download and modify it—visualizing collections of books, perhaps, or a constellation of genomes. Public-minded nerds years from now will be able to create “emulators”—software that runs on modern computers but emulates today’s iPad, so people eons from now can see how Planetary appeared in 2013.

Why has Cooper-Hewitt taken this approach? To preserve it. As Seb Chan and Aaron Cope describe in their post about the acquisition, the Museum hopes that making Planetary‘s source code open, it will encourage developers, scholars and enthusiasts to help develop new versions of the app, which can work on different operating systems.

Open sourcing the code is akin to a panda breeding program. If there is enough interest then we believe that Planetary’s DNA will live on in other skin on other platforms. Of course we will preserve the original, but it will be ‘experienced’ through its offspring.

This move, and the associated language used by Chan and Cope to describe it, makes me wonder whether this is the first example in a museum context (beyond zoos, acquaria or other natural living collections) of ‘cooperative conservation’? In an environmental context (which seems appropriate, given the panda metaphor employed by Chan and Cope), cooperative conservation has been defined (by George Bush in a 2004 Executive Order) as:

actions that relate to use, enhancement, and enjoyment of natural resources, protection of the environment, or both, and that involve collaborative activity among Federal, State, local, and tribal governments, private for-profit and nonprofit institutions, other nongovernmental entities and individuals.

Cooperative conservation, then, is a form of collaborative action taken by various entities and individuals with the aim of conserving a species. A cooperative conservation program is:

a breeding and/or management program that aims to conserve a species (in the wild or in captivity, or both) and applies best practice to the management of husbandry, genetics, biology and behavioural needs of the species. The program’s objectives must be based on the conservation status and needs of the species, and the program must not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.

This language feels almost applicable to the Cooper-Hewitt’s decision to conserve Planetary as a physical object (a copy of the source code is also preserved in a machine-readable font on archival paper), and their tag-and-release program, which has seen the code re-enter the wild. The institution has taken the approach to tackle the needs of the species as a living object. Ideally, this will mean that the code can be adapted to suit different purposes and environments, preserving Planetary not simply as app, but as ‘an interaction design that found its ‘then-best manifestation’ in the iPad.’

This raises a few questions, including who exactly is going to be responsible for participating in this cooperative venture, and under what conditions. How will individuals be recruited to invest their time and energy in this kind of cooperative conservation project, and what will compel them to remain part of the Museum’s efforts to preserve Planetary and future projects of this kind?

This morning, I’ve been reading Mathieu O’Neil’s Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes, in which O’Neil describes the relationship between authority on the Internet and autonomy. In a section on distributed or cooperative production in free-software projects, O’Neil notes (p44)  that:

The availability of source code makes it possible for an unlimited number of individuals to collaborate in its development. This, in itself, it not enough to guarantee that it will be developed: the possibility must be realised by a community of people willing to invest their time and energy. The capacity of project leaders to successfully attract and retain participants and integrate their contributions is crucial for the survival of the project.

Similarly, there is an interesting piece in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment journal, on The Promise and Challenge of Cooperative Conservation, which has relevance here. Terrie Klinger and Virginia Dale observe that cooperative conservation has some inherent difficulties in its application, due to the challenges in moving from a system dominated by top-down, regulatory processes to one motivated by shared goals and accomplished through cooperative action. They write:

Efforts will be idiosyncratic, and likely will be motivated by the desire to conserve iconic species, restore special landscape features, or avoid federal regulation. Successes will be patchy in time and space, and there will be mismatches in scale between conservation action and ecological process.

Successful action will depend on the leadership of a few strong actors; consequently, outcomes could be driven by special interests, and the predictability and repeatability of successful action could be low. Durability of successful outcomes will depend on the sustained engagement of interested parties.

Effective vertical integration will be difficult to achieve.

Scientific and technical expertise will often be limiting in projects that rely on volunteers or community groups.

Coalition building and cooperative action will take time and the temporal scale required for cooperation may not match the scale of the threat.

Global climate change will add a new and difficult dimension to all efforts and may overwhelm or undo short-term successes.

Cooperative action will not eliminate conflict, but will change the manner in which conflicts are resolved. Unresolved conflicts will delay action and could accelerate loss or degradation of the resource of interest.

Take out the words ‘ecological’ and ‘climate’ here, and substitute in ‘technological’, and I think these challenges may be similar to the ones that the Cooper-Hewitt and other institutions that take this kind of approach to conserving born digital objects might face. This is not to suggest I don’t think this project will work. Conversely, I think that sites such as Wikipedia demonstrate, there is indeed a hunger for these kinds of participatory projects, and this makes Cooper-Hewitt’s willingness to experiment in this area all the more exciting. However, there is a much higher bar for participation in a project that requires people to hack source code than for someone to make a correction on Wikipedia, or to add a tag to a museum collection, so I wonder whether museums tackling these kinds of acquisitions will need members of staff to take on deliberate roles as online project leaders or focal points for such cooperative ventures.

A few weeks before Cooper-Hewitt made this acquisition public, I wrote a post on museums curating the digital world. In the comments, Nicole Cama and Penelope Hyde from the Australian National Maritime Museum drew attention to the fact that curators working in a digital space might have to negotiate roles including Digital Exhibition, Engagement Curation, and Digital Content Curation, while Koven Smith suggested that in a context where objects are essentially nonrivalrous ‘the curator role [might actually be] a collectivist role (as the ‘editor’ role essentially is with Wikipedia), rather than a specialized one contained within a single person’. Maybe what these kinds of acquisitions and community conservation projects might require is not a curator per se (with the top-down knowledge connotations that come along), but an enabler and engager?

Regardless of these questions, I’m really, really excited by this move by the Cooper-Hewitt. As Seb and Aaron write in their post:

Museums like ours are used to collecting exemplary achievements made manifest in physical form; or at least things whose decay we believe we can combat and slow. To that end we employ highly trained conservators who have learned their craft often over decades of training, to preserve what would often be forgotten and more quickly turn to dust.

But preserving large, complex and interdependent systems whose component pieces are often simply flirting with each other rather than holding hands is uncharted territory. Trying to preserve large, complex and interdependent systems whose only manifestation is conceptual – interaction design say or service design – is harder still.

It’s wonderful that the museum is tackling this question head on. This is a project to watch.

There’s still much to be unpacked here (and in my dissertation!), but I’d be really interested in hearing your reflections on Cooper-Hewitt’s acquisition, and this idea of ‘cooperative conservation’. Do you think that born digital acquisitions can be conserved cooperatively? Is this an apt metaphor? And if so, what do you think might be necessary to make such projects successful?

12 thoughts on “Cooperative conservation? On Cooper-Hewitt’s acquisition of a ‘living object’

  1. Hi Suse, Great post on a fascinating angle on collecting. As a conservator I initially interpreted your use of ‘cooperative conservation’ in a different way that you intended, until I saw the gist of your argument. However, without directly commenting on your question, one of the really interesting parts of this debate is actually how we are physically going to conserve this type of collectable. As Seb says in his blog, this material is becoming obsolete (read ‘unreadable’) so fast that access to it and therefore its’ value is going to be limited unless we plan now for its future conservation. Does conservation in this context mean recopying the software onto ever more advanced digital formats?

    1. Julian, thanks for the response. On your first point, about the term ‘cooperative conservation’, I’d be interested to hear more about your initial interpretation of the term. I was just out walking (and, therefore, thinking) and realised that I hadn’t necessarily defined the term particularly clearly, or delineated it from the kind of cooperation that has undoubtably been occurring within institutions or cross-institutionally since conservation became a concern. Instead, as you seem to have gleaned, I’m talking about a far more community-driven type of cooperation. But if you would like to iterate about your initial reaction, it might still provide some interesting insight/perspectives.

      As for your own interesting question, I’d almost like to bounce it back to you as a conservator. When you work, are you trying to preserve the physicality of an object, or its spirit, or both? And, depending on what the answer is to that, how might you seek to tackle this problem?

  2. I see the cooperativeness of the conservation as a necessary by-product of the “object” being preserved. Software isn’t a thing. Software is a process. There is no object at the end of software development, only a continued process that goes on until the software is abandoned (both by the developers and users). Software can be broken down into it’s constituent processes and analyzed.

    1. The process of envisioning the software. “Hey, I have an idea.”

    2. The process of designing the software.

    3. The process of building the software.

    4. The process of distributing/acquiring the software.

    5. The process of using it.

    6. The process of modifying/updating it.

    7. Abandonement, all processes end.

    Software is not a thing, but a codified collection of these processes. How do you preserve process? How do you preserve an object that is actually a sequence of events? If it’s performance art, you record the performance and put the DVD player on infinite repeat. If it’s software you install it on a computer in your gallery and just let it run, but that only captures a very small part of the process (#5).

    By open-sourcing the software, CH has preserved the whole process, even step #1. Because now other people have the opportunity to say, “I have an idea for how to use the Planetary interface.” Those people will fork the git repository, start their process (in the open because the license requires it), and the process of Planetary will continue. The process is the object being preserved here, and I don’t know how else they could possibly have accomplished it short of hiring a development team to work on it for the rest of eternity in the CH basement.

    They’ve essentially tried to create a system where the software is never abandoned. That’s the interesting part. That’s the part that will be fun to watch; to see how long they can keep this thing rolling beyond its normal life cycle. Because, that is in the end, what preserving software needs to be about. The source code isn’t the software. The app running on an iPad isn’t really the software either. The processes of it’s creation and actual use are the software. Everything else is just a snapshot. Preserving a photo of an ancient artifact is not equivalent to preserving the object itself. Anything short of open-sourcing the software is like a photo of the software. It’s a nice record of the object, but it’s not the object.

  3. Matt, thanks for providing this perspective, and so eloquently. I think you’ve provided a particularly valuable kind of clarity and insight into the idea that the museum ‘object’ in this case is a process, and one that does not conclude upon acquisition, but that will (hopefully) continue to develop.

    Your last paragraph is really interesting to me. Do you think that this kind of cooperative conservation process can necessarily only exist in a relatively small number of cases? Museums don’t actively conserve their whole collections at all times, and that would surely also be true of an approach like this one, were there many such ‘objects/processes’ that needed conservation. But unlike in the museum context, it is not necessarily up to the museum to dictate which project people work on. This sort of ‘work’ would be opt-in by default. So is it (could it be) a reliable form of conservation, or are the implicit idiosyncracies the come from relying only on a community beyond the museum itself problematic? Since you’re actually part of that community, I’d be really interested in your thoughts.

    1. The cooperative conservation process is odd in this case, because one half (or more) of that cooperative equation isn’t actually trying to conserve anything (in an explicit sense). The people who will play with, modify and use the source code for Planetary aren’t necessarily trying to conserve it for the same reasons a museum would, but it’s the process that these people are engaged in that we should be trying to “conserve”. The key to this long-term conservation is mostly in avoiding that final process, the process of abandonment. Once the software is abandoned by any-all users and any/all developers, all you can possibly be left with is an abstract representation of the software, the printed out source code, the ancient iPad still running the app. In that sense, there are thousands of cases in use right now. Museums just aren’t looking at them, they’re not doing their part of the cooperation in most cases.

      So in that sense, any currently in-use open source software project is a candidate for museum conservation. The operating system I’m using right now is built on the foundation of an over forty-year-old open source project. That foundational project should really be in a museum because its impact on the world is pretty huge, far more so than anything Microsoft or Apple has ever done. When this now-venerable piece of software is finally abandoned, the only thing remaining of it will be the artifacts left behind, but for now it’s a living exhibit (to borrow Cooper Hewitt’s imagery) that’s still in the wild.

      How much of this any one institution can do will really boil down to how they present it more than how they plan to conserve it. When you go to a design museum and look at a chair, they may talk about the design process or the manufacturing process, and most of us have some idea how those things work. We may not all be woodworkers, but we can grasp the basic abstract concept of joinery and sanding. Most people right now have absolutely no clue what software really is, let alone how it works or how it’s made. There a lot of software developers out there who only have foggy notions about what they’re creating.

      I think the real challenge for the Cooper Hewitt will be presenting the software for what it is and presenting the processes that created it in a way that the average visitor will find useful, meaningful and approachable. Once they solve that problem, we might get a clearer idea of just what it is that needs to be conserved. It could turn out in the end that certain artifacts or snapshots of the actual object may be more useful than others. But how do you even explain what software is to a population of people who use it everyday without really knowing how it effects them? I think comparing it to ritual objects from past cultures is maybe the best place to start. After all, software is not just a utilitarian object (like many ritual objects) it’s also a persuasive and manipulative one (like many ritual objects). It doesn’t express opinions as fact, but as actions, and most people today are completely oblivious to the way their behavior is overtly manipulated by strangers every day (inside tip: many developers are equally oblivious to the inherently manipulative character of our chosen field, the ways we casually presume how millions of tasks per day *should* be completed). There’s a lot to discuss here, and museums are frankly late to the party. Where is the Cooper Hewitt even going to begin? I’m really looking forward to finding out.

      1. Where I am struggling with this discussion I now realise is in the use of the word conservation. It already has two distinct uses in the environmental and material/ building world, and in the latter space, where I work, it is used across a range of different activities, often freely, encompassing preservation, restoration and renovation. Even the professionals who work in museums can’t agree on definitions, for instance conservators are called restorers in Germany.
        So calling what the Cooper Hewitt has done conservation ? I don’t think so. This sounds like something between ‘maintaining the life of ‘ , ‘revitalising’ and ‘repurposing’. Perhaps we need a new vocab for this type of collecting.

  4. Amazing post, Suse! Very thought provoking. I remain on the road until the 25th but will be considering each of these remarks thoughtfully. As Jerry Podany, President of the IIC has pointed out, conservators manage change. At each interaction, the ideas and maniffestations of human imagination, tangile and intangble are modified as a result of our decision to intervene.. At our very best, we are aware of the values and decisions implied by our actions and document not only the “whats” that we impose on our colelcted knowledge but also the “whys”. I suspect Seb and Aaron have articulated fundamental truths about the act and profession of conservation.

  5. I graduated from a conservation program in England about a year ago, and am in private practice in the US now. Although I was trained as a book & paper conservator, my fellow students conserved clocks, ceramics, metals, furniture, buildings, etc., and all of our ethical and decision making skills shared a similar approach, a similar foundation. It’s not too far of a jump to apply those ethics, practice, and decision-making to code.

    The is an emerging theory of conservation that moves from object based conservation (this thing is broken so we should fix it) past values based conservation (this thing is broken and fixing it would increase its cultural value) towards a people based conservation (this thing is broken, and these people or these groups of people care about it for various reasons, so we should conserve it somehow). A good example is the Hinimihi meeting house in England, which was in danger of falling apart / being lost.
    Technically a wooden building, culturally a Maori ancestor (literally a person) Hinemihi could have been put under glass and preserved, or restored to a certain arbitrary point in its history. Both count as conservation depending on the needs and uses of that object. Instead the British Maori community decided to use it actively as a cultural center. When thinking about people based conservation we argue that the best way to save (conserve) an object is to make it important to a group of people, or as many groups of people as possible. A whole different set of conservation decisions follows from this statement of values.

    How this applies to code? It depends on what stakeholders are involved with the process. If there is an active community caring for the code, then decisions can be made accordingly. If not, different decisions will be made.

    While Mr. Popke is obviously very passionate about this certain concern, it’s not really too different from other objects in museums (well in materiality it is different, but the concept of its conservation is not.) There is a good argument that conserving a steam locomotive in a museum completely destroys the spirit of that object – that it is a machine, and a machine that doesn’t work has no point whatsoever (that an unworking machine is analogous to a photo of that machine). There’s lots of train enthusiasts that would argue that machine should be restored and used, thereby saving the essence of the object – similar to the ‘process’ of code argument.But there are also good arguments for plonking one down in a museum. I argue the same things about books – they are working machines that should function – but some require different treatment. People based conservation goes a step further and argues that if no one cares about the object, what’s the point (and part of our jobs is to encourage people to care).

    My 2013 conception of conservation pretty wide open. It includes restoration, renovation, preservation, re-use, repair, etc. In the end, the descriptor doesn’t matter as much as the decision making process and values we apply to the object we are trying to save.

    1. Alex, thank you for this considered reply. Did you ever discuss the conservation of born digital artefacts in your conservation program? I’m super interested in hearing about how such issues are being discussed in educational contexts.

      Also, you might be interested in the discussion with Seb Chan, Aaron Cope, and Dale Kronkright that Jeff Inscho and I had recently as part of the Museopunks podcast. We consider some of these issues around conservation of these kinds of living artefacts. You can find it at

      1. Suse-
        I found my way here through the Museopunks podcast, so had already listened to it. I have a different perspective than Mr. Kronkright, and my opinions differ slightly as well.

        I do not think that conserving code is actually that revolutionary, and changing technology enhances our work, but doesn’t substantially change it. Conservators have always used whatever technology was available (X-ray photography, FTIR, SEM, and today multi-spectral imaging and XRF) but these are just tools.

        My school did not address born-digital conservation, but it did present conservation as a decision-making process that applies to anything from a Roman villa to a video artwork designed to exist on a pyramid of 1980’s CRT television screens. Each new object presents its own challenges but the ethical and practical considerations are similar. This applies to born-digital as well.

        I actually think that it would be unethical for a school to train a born-digital conservator today because that conservator would be unemployable! Conservators already have a hard enough time finding employment, or finding freelance work, and there simply are no jobs for digital conservators (or very few) today.

        Generally conservators use a basic platform of ethics & practice, informed by knowledge of history, science, and usually specific craft tradition. Most book conservators have a knowledge of book history and book making – most metals conservators have metalworking skills – you have to understand how it was made in order to conserve it. Additionally, a book conservator by training can evolve into a leather conservator, a taxidermy conservator, a conservator of paper prints or photos, a preservation specialist, or an object conservator at a museum (or a curator). Or I could educate myself in the history and practice of ceramics and move laterally into that field. So there is lots of lateral movement based on a solid conservation education.

        A conservator who learned coding and the history of software, or a computer scientist who learned conservation ethics, principle, history, & practice, could be a born-digital conservation specialist. I think this will be unlikely however until museums & institutions are willing to employ someone like this. It is standard, however, for conservators to consult with specialists in other fields (science, history, craft, etc.) in their work, so I could see a programmer and objects conservator working together in the future.

        I could go on for ages, but won’t. Cheers!

  6. I think you’d be interested to know that Kemal Envers, a Sydney based developer, has Remastered Planetary and it is now available again on the app store. You can hear Seb’s take on it here: I’m the museum’s current conservator tasked with the stewardship of our digital collections (an objects conservator by training, working with excellent digital preservation contractors at Small Data Industries) and we’re presenting our take on the evolution of this story at the upcoming 2021 American Institute of Conservation Annual meeting (virtual, summer 2021). Get in touch with us if you’d like to hear more to follow up on your piece.

  7. I think you’d be interested to know that Kemal Enver, a Sydney based developer, has Remastered Planetary and it is now available again on the app store. You can hear Seb’s take on it here: I’m the museum’s current conservator tasked with the stewardship of our digital collections (an objects conservator by training, working with excellent digital preservation contractors at Small Data Industries) and we’re presenting our take on the evolution of this story at the upcoming 2021 American Institute of Conservation Annual meeting (virtual, summer 2021). Get in touch with us if you’d like to hear more to follow up on your piece.

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