How Does a Museum Collect Software?

Published on 2018-05-08

A look inside the conservator’s process

By Lorena Ramírez-López and Ben Fino-Radin

When you imagine what an art conservator does, you might conjure an image of a quiet and meticulous restorer filling in the cracks of a renaissance painting. While this archetype is certainly a real thing, it is increasingly less and less what art conservation looks like – as the former chief conservator at the Hirschhorn once said: “how to manage inevitable change versus how to arrest it is essential to the conservation of much contemporary art.”

This is especially true with the types of artworks being acquired by The Current Museum – artworks that involve technologies such as film, video, sound, and software (collectively referred to at “Time-Based Media Art”). Although you may think of art conservators as coming in to the picture decades after an artwork was collected, the acquisition process itself is actually one of the most pivotal moments in the conservation of. 

There are two reasons for this: first, we need to ensure that the correct files and documentation are obtained, and secondly, these kinds of artworks are being acquired by The Current Museum are often inherently variable in how they may or may not be displayed, exhibited, and even preserved. Creating an record and institutional knowledge of how the artists themselves have managed this “inevitable change” over time is critical in ensuring the longevity of The Current Museum’s growing collection. 

Although the challenges of how to collect and preserve works of art that involve digital video, sound, and software are still relatively new, the fundamentals of conservation as defined by the American Institute of Conservation still apply, but on-the-ground technique and process does look different from what one would expect of a painting or sculpture conservator. Today we are excited to share with you a look at what this process actually entails, and how we are approaching the conservation of The Current Museum’s collection.

Our process begins with the conclusion of an acquisition salon, and The Current Museum’s committee decision as to which of the proposed works should be acquired – we immediately engage the artists in a dialogue, and eventually an artist interview, so that we may understand and document a clear picture of their intentions, wishes, and how they have dealt with issues of display and preservation in the past. These interviews are typically unscripted, but we do have a checklist of sorts of questions we want to make sure we cover. No matter how experienced a conservator is, checklists are an important tool for ensuring uniformity and quality of information.

This interview helps immensely to form our understanding of what materials need to be collected for preservation purposes. To illustrate the next step in our process of acquisition and preservation, we will use as example Ryan Kuo’s "Family Maker". This work is what we would consider a software-based artwork, specifically an interactive software-based artwork, as it requires interaction in order to be fully experienced. 

When viewing the work, one is fact interacting with a Macintosh application, or  .app package. The work is typically provided to collectors as an .app file, with an included readme file. At The Current Museum’s salon, "Family Maker" was displayed on an iMac located in a bedroom, slightly separated from the other artworks to create a personal space for experiencing the work. Kuo approved of this display – and even came to help install the work, suggesting the best furniture arrangement and setting up the computer's desktop – but also approved of a large-scale projection of "Family Maker"at a recent installation at the Queens Museum. 

 "Family Maker" from Ryan Kuo installed at The Current’s first salon. Image courtesy of The Current

It has generally become an accepted practice in conservation that the acquisition of source code is recommended for long-term preservation. Through our interview with Kuo however we learned that "Family Maker"was created in a special Integrated Development Environment (IDE) that works from a “project file” rather than a collection of source code – and it is from this IDE that the .app provided to The Current was exported. This “project file” can be thought of as analogous to a special file format such as a Photoshop .PSD file – you can not quite access and understand the makeup of the file’s contents without the software that created it.

The artist interview helped form our understanding that in addition to the executable .app file, for preservation purposes we would need to collect the project file from Kuo’s IDE, download and install the IDE, and create a snapshot of this entire functioning development environment. Years from now, when this software based artwork does eventually become obsolete – which will most likely be due to an incompatibility with contemporary Macintosh operating systems – it will be a conservators job to weigh the best option for coping with this, and having the ability to scrutinize its original creation environment will be an invaluable tool in this decision making process.

So, the package for acquisition and preservation in this case includes not only materials provided by the artist (.app file, readme, IDE project file), but also materials assembled and prepared for the work’s preservation: a disk image of a Macintosh computer running OS X High Sierra containing the IDE used by Kuo installed, Kuo’s IDE project file, and the .app file, as well as supporting documentation explaining all of these materials and their purpose, as well as thorough documentation of how the work was exhibited now and previously – all for future stewards of the collection.

 "Family Maker" by Ryan Kuo, Animated GIF courtesy of the artist

One of the most exciting and unique aspects of The Current Museum is that committee members are given direct access to the museum’s collection – for private viewing in their home. We used our artist interviews as an opportunity to learn from the artists how they felt their work may be best displayed in a home setting.  The Current Museum’s director Kelani Nichole hopes that “this kind of intimate access can help encourage a deeper relationship with the works, and will help The Current grow a new generation of support for media art”.

When artworks are digital, sharing is of course made much easier, but how to track these copies and their ownership does introduce quite the challenge. In the case of "Family Maker" however, Kuo chose the online gallery LeftGallery to release this work on their Ethereum-based licensing system for the digital works in their inventory. This system in turn provides a means for The Current Museum to purchase, distribute and transfer specific ownership rights to each of their committee members for "Family Maker". The work is also available for others to buy online at LeftGallery – The Current's committee acquired the first 15 editions of 88. If you are interested in learning more about the application of blockchain technologies for managing rights and distribution of artworks, The Current Museum’s director Kelani Nichole will be speaking on a panel discussion this June at Art Basel on the topic.

We are very excited to be working with The Current Museum as they continue to build their visionary collection of art seeking to unpack the impact of technology on the human condition. You can directly impact our efforts to push forward not only The Current Museum’s collection, but also the conservation practices that support it – consider joining the acquisition committee! If you join before May 23rd you will be just in time for the next salon – on the theme of Permanence, and curated by Small Data Industries’ founder and lead conservator Ben Fino-Radin.