Safeguarding for the Future: Managing Born-digital Collections in Museums (Management Project)

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Over the past few decades, advancements in technology have changed society entirely. Every bit of information about world news, popular culture, and art is just a tap of a touchscreen away. So many aspects of the contemporary world have become digitized so that it was only a matter of time before museums would have to face the issue of born-digital media in their collections.From videos to web-based art, museums have to tackle how to save this new form of cultural heritage. Museums have to do so now before it gets lost forever. The challenge of born-digital objects lies in its nature of impermanence and rapid obsolescence. Is it possible to safeguard collections for the future?

This thesis aims to explore and define born-digital collections in museums from the perspective of a registrar and collections manager.These kinds of objects and art are disreputably unstable and fragile. Throughout, I analyze how museums embrace digitization as well as various collections management practices, surrounding legal issues, and current preservation solutions. My thesis also studies the current challenges with preservation and conservation of digital media.

I argue that the most optimized solutions for safeguarding born-digital media are yet to come in efforts to maintain access and preservation. Although the future is unpredictable, it is imperative for museums to research new methods for safeguarding born-digital collections for both public access and documentation of cultural heritage.


Museums serve many purposes. They are pillars of preservation, research, science, education, exhibition , art, cultural heritage, and knowledge. Externally museums may be all of these things, but internally they face many different problems to which the public is not exposed to.Behind every photograph on display and behind every video playing on a monitor, a museum has a different story about what it took to make those objects viewable for the public.

By wearing many different hats, collecting institutions open their doors to a plethora of permanent issues that coincide with maintaining digital collections. They go beyond basic collecting, preserving, and display and learn to become problem solvers, striving towards finding a most ideal solution to permanently care for these types of collections.

Born-digital objects or not, museums have a duty to the public to sustain cultural heritage forever. This chapter takes a look at how professionals in the field challenged the digitization of museums and their collections over time, analyzing the issues surrounding four specific areas: photography, videography, digital art, and performance art.

By taking a closer look at what digitization in museums means in relation to these four genres of collections, one better understands issues surrounding the born-digital world. This chapter illustrates why beginning to preserve and safeguard them today is imperative for ensuring continuous access to cultural heritage.


Collections management and registration in museums are often intertwined. The museum world, which essentially began as a hobby of the wealthy and royal, grew into a sophisticated, professionalized field over the past few centuries.

As time went by and museum professionals began taking collections management more seriously, the focus leaned towards best practices and procedures for object care. From environmental controls such as sunlight and temperature to pest mitigation and disaster plans, collections management became something of a science.

In today’s museums, new issues arise with digital collections. How does a registrar number and track an object that is not physically tangible? How do we preserve something whose mechanism of use will become obsolete in a matter of years with constant technology updates? How do we access the object then?

These are all important questions collections managers face as digital photography and video, performances, and digital art become more popular. Because collections management for digital objects is so vastly different from a more traditional museum collection, a different approach must be taken towards maintaining them.

The notion of object decay becomes more real and rapid. This chapter explores how digital collections are stored and preserved, how they are loaned for exhibitions. I will also discuss how registrars can best track these unique objects.By dissecting past and current methodology, I stress the need for museums to consider born-digital objects and their preservation needs at the moment they are acquired. This will aid in the safeguarding of digital media for future use and access.


Google is one of the most revolutionary technological advances of all time. There is an under appreciated ability to type a word, phrase, name, destination—anything—into this search engine and get millions of hits in under a second. A person can virtually travel from Rome to the Himalayas to Seton Hall all in the same day.

One can view almost any art form that peaks curiosity in high definition. Programs like Google Arts & Culture allow us to see master works like Van Gogh’s Starry Night noticing each brush stroke, every gap between the paint and canvas.

The internet has given us the ability to find out anything, see anything, and with minimal boundaries of doing so, regardless if the content is entirely understood. The concept of public patrimony presents itself when thinking about the internet and all it has to offer society.

With every bit of information at one’s fingertips, society has a newfound sense of entitlement.Everything belongs to everyone because any thought, idea, or thing is available instantaneously online.

What most people do not think about are the inherent legal issues like copyright, fair use, ownership, and access. Museums face this challenge in a multitude of ways, whether born-digital collection objects are brought to mind or simply the idea of digitizing an entire collection. Museums face limitations to things that individuals uploading and downloading from the internet do not.

This chapter explores key legal issues like copyright and accessibility for digital objects in museums. The word “safeguard” takes on an entirely new definition, especially since it deals with individual and public rights when confronted with these legal issues. Safeguarding digital objects can also protect an individual’s rights over copyright and the public’s right to access.


In earliest times of human history, technology may have denoted something as simple as a lithic tool used in everyday life. Today, technology may refer to iPads, the navigation in cars, or anything that can be done easily with the push of a button or even voice commands.

Technology today is fast-paced and ever-evolving. One piece of technology may become better than the next, typically in a matter of months. The iPhone 6s is now “outdated” to its successor, the 7, both of which have release dates just six months apart.

People have the ability to connect, or reconnect, with people across the globe instantly through programs like Skype and Facetime. Everything is completed with instant gratification.

This state of constant update and change has caused many problems for museums since the conception of the computer. Museums have been seen as “stuck in the past” based on their reputation of being homes for history.

Most struggle with being understaffed and underfunded, leaving collections to be pushed aside and not documented or preserved properly. With the surge of born-digital collections into museums, registrars and collection managers have the responsibility of trying to keep up. Despite these struggles, born-digital media hold advantages, too.


From the conception of the computer to smart phones society so desperately depends on today,technology has shaped the way one thinks and functions. The digital evolution has been rapid and constantly changing, so fast that institutions like museums have a difficult time in keeping up. Just when one gets used to one piece of technology, the next best thing comes out.

If technology goes without being upgraded, most devices become obsolete and the information saved becomes irretrievable. The challenge museums face has been accelerated because of their collections, specifically those with born-digital objects.

This thesis explored and dissected the ins and outs of born-digital media in relation to museum collection management. It discussed various born-digital objects such as video art, navigated legal issues such as copyright infringement, and analyzed current and evolving solutions such as emulation.

I argue that the current fears of losing contemporary cultural heritage will be lessened when considering the opportunities of various existing and future technologies to address such concerns.

Technology becomes obsolete when hardware and software become outdated. Born-digital media are some of the most fragile types of art and objects that museums collect. Although digital media present significant preservation challenges, museum technologies are only just beginning to offer remedies and solutions.

As with other technology, the best applications may not have been created yet to help museum professionals preserve and conserve born-digital objects. There may always be something greater waiting to be invented. With diligence and patience, museums will be preserving and safeguarding their collections for the future.

Source: Seton Hall University
Author: Kimberly Kruse

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