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?

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.

For museums to make the ‘digital shift’, does the art/artefact market itself have to change?

Seb Chan has just written a great post positing the idea that museums will not truly begin to incorporate the digital into their core operations and institutional DNA until they have significant born digital collections. He writes:

Born-digital no longer requires ‘buildings’ and that’s when things becomes interesting.

He’s right – it is interesting. However, I think it is only scratching the surface of the question, because in order for most museums to view born-digital as being significant for collection, the very art/artefact market likely needs to change. (Note: I am mostly thinking through this issue with the art market in mind.)

Somaya, a commenter on Seb’s post, writes:

Born digital suffers from both impermanence and the ability to be everywhere all at once. Either there is only one copy (which is lost easily) or millions that are everywhere and likely to turn up in collections multiple times (not a good approach of every organisation is spending their resources preserving the same thing).

Until there is a basic shift in fully embracing digital collecting plus preservation, management and provision of access – through policies and strategic directions of these organisations – digital will slip to the side of other more traditional collecting workflows.

Her point, that the born-digital artefact is both impermanent and able to be everywhere at once, seems to run completely counter to the way art markets create value, with their emphasis on rarity, longevity and physicality (and therefore, good prospects for return on investment). A 2008 article from the NYTimes on the sale of a version of the Magna Carta exemplifies this sentiment.

Just when digital reproduction makes it possible to create a “Rembrandt” good enough to fool the eye, the “real” Rembrandt becomes more expensive than ever. Why? Because the same free flow that makes information cheap and reproducible helps us treasure the sight of information that is not. A story gains power from its attachment, however tenuous, to a physical object. The object gains power from the story. The abstract version may flash by on a screen, but the worn parchment and the fading ink make us pause. The extreme of scarcity is intensified by the extreme of ubiquity.

The object, thus, potentially could become more valuable for museums in the short term, and in fact until museums begin to build the digital into core operations and value. There could be both a backlash against the potentially ubiquitous nature of born-digital art/design/architecture etc, and an urge to cling on to what museums have that is different from that which is available everywhere else online, particularly because there is a known and quantifiable value that can be placed on objects in a way that has not yet (to my knowledge) been defined for born-digital artefacts.

Beyond this however, museum collections are undoubtedly influenced by the art market and the interests of private collectors, whose willingness to spend money on acquiring works of art by particular artists will often drive the reputations and careers of those artists (and therefore make them valuable for museums, too, to collect). Such a system is thus a kind of informalised method for vetting those works or artists that a museum should seek to acquire, because those objects (should) have a more likely ROI.

This article explaining the art market by James Panero captures this idea:

The art market has a unique talent for promoting art about the market. Since exhibition history enhances value, the collectors of what we might call “market art” have a vested interest in seeing their work take up space in traditional public collections. They often have the financial leverage to make it happen. In this way, the hedge-fund collector Steven A. Cohen could place Damien Hirst’s shark tank on temporary loan at the Metropolitan Museum. The oversized trinkets of Jeff Koons start appearing at the same time in the museum’s rooftop gallery.

Curators defend such expensive contemporary work as relevant to the commercialism of the age: the market gives meaning to the art.

A quote from Leo Steinberg in the article is also useful.

Art is not, after all, what we thought it was; in the broadest sense it is hard cash. The whole of art, its growing tip included, is assimilated to familiar values. Another decade, and we shall have mutual funds based on securities in the form of pictures held in bank vaults.

What we don’t yet have, then, is the way for equating born-digital art/artefacts with hard cash, and a proven sale/resale history to demonstrate ROI.

In some ways, I am sure this cannot be far away. In the Internet age, information is becoming valuable in ways that were previously unimaginable. The Real Time Report recently reported that estimates put the market value of a Facebook user at between $89-$118. Here, the seemingly intangible has tangible or real value. What the art market, and museums, haven’t yet done is find ways to assess/communicate the intrinsic value of born-digital materials. We don’t yet know what the ROI is, either for private collectors or institutional ones.

And there’s the rub. While Seb is probably right, and it’s not until institutions hold substantial born-digital collections that they are likely to build digital into core museum practice, it might not be until the art/artefact markets begin to intrinsically value born-digital artefacts that they will become a collecting priority.

What do you think?