Museums Race To Save Digital Archives

HOST INTRO: As we integrate technology into our everyday lives, artists, too, are using it as a medium. But digital art has created new challenges for museums trying to preserve it for the future. Maddy Foley has more.


FOLEY 1: When a painting comes into the Guggenheim Museum, Lena Stringari’s conservation team has a program. They take photos and make measurements, and then the painting is viewable. But when a digital piece comes in, they can’t just display it — they have to figure out how to keep it running. Even if it’s just an object with blinking lights.



At the outset we need to have a program to keep it alive because if you wait, you might be faced with obsolescence pretty quickly, much quicker than a tangible sculpture or painting (00:16)


FOLEY 2: Museums across the country are struggling to care for their rapidly aging digital collections. Over the last year, the Guggenheim has teamed up with NYU’s Mathematics department to form The Initiative for Conserving Computer-Based Art. So far, they’ve saved two internet-based works from the early 2000s. But Guggenheim conservator Lena Stringari says only the biggest institutions have the necessary resources.



What I worry about all the little independent nonprofits and artists who don’t sell their work. What is going to happen to all the artwork that doesn’t end up in an institution? (0:13)


FOLEY 3: That’s where people like Ben Fino-Radin come in. In his Sunset Park studio, Fino-Radin teaches artists and collectors how to preserve digital art. Hundreds of wires, computer screens and video game consoles line his office.


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We have kind of a whole, long wall of all kinds of equipment, and cables, and adaptors and devices and blinky lights and doo-hickies that look like they do something interesting and they all, generally, do. (0:15)


FOLEY 4: A few years ago, Fino-Radin was in grad school. He was studying information science, a safety net in case his career as a video artist didn’t take off.



It just dawned on me that all of this art I’ve been making since I was an undergrad, and all of the art that I’d been studying and had been passionate about, that it falls apart. (0:11)


FOLEY 5: Today, Fino-Radin and his team work to not only preserve digital works, but make them accessible on modern devices, like phones.



I can pull out my phone and this is actually playing in real time from one of these boxes, so we’ve created peer to peer storage network. This is going to last that client at least five to seven years.  (0:22)


FOLEY 6: A drawing will last as long as the paper does. But Fino-Radin says there’s a point of no return for digital pieces. Their physical hardware might still exist, but the actual work has disappeared.  



People have come to us and said, “Hey help us recover this thing” or “Get this artwork installed” and we come to find, well, actually, it turns out, you don’t have it. It’s gone. (0:13)


FOLEY 7: And it’s this kind of loss that worries Columbia Library’s web archivist, Alex Lawson. Because a generation of art, which functions as our culture’s mirror, reminding us what we look like — it’s disappearing.



So much of artistic expression, and culture in general, is based on what’s come before. And you lose all that, if you don’t have anything to look at.


FOLEY 8: Major institutions, though, have started investing in digital preservation. Last week, the Obama Foundation announced they’ll be creating a digitized presidential library — full of preserved Snapchats and tweets.


Maddy Foley, Columbia Radio News.

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