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.