Born-Digital Museum Records: What’s My Project All About?


The YCBA

Sometimes after a meeting on the 4th floor at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA, for short), I like to stroll among the paintings and sculptures in our permanent collection, which contains highlights (for me) such as John Constable’s Cloud Studies and JMW Turner’s Wreckers — Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore. I enjoy reading the curator-created wall text, which contains historical information that adds a layer of context to the aesthetic experience.

Long Gallery, fourth floor, Yale Center for British Art, photograph by Richard Caspole

Designed by Louis Kahn, the museum contains the largest assemblage of British art outside the United Kingdom and opened to the public in 1977; it has an airy, open-yet-maze-like quality that encourages meandering among the artworks–and since my desk is in the Institutional Archives, and is located in another building, I’m not around the artworks on a daily basis. These strolls remind me of what’s at the heart of this project. These works of art have traveled the world and through time to arrive here presently, on view and looking their best. However, what’s not on view, apart from the wall text, is the story of how the work came to be, how it got here, and its proof of authenticity.

Say it With Me: Provenance Is Important!

Every painting and print, each rare book and marble bust, has a unique biography. In a museum or gallery this is called “provenance” and it’s an important part of each artwork’s existence within a collection. Without provenance, a painting’s authenticity and ownership can be disputed, its history unknown and unknowable. It’s true that the work itself is the star of the show, but its provenance and documentation constitute an artwork’s value and place in history: intellectually, legally, culturally, and financially. A fake Renoir is not a Renoir, no matter what its owner claims–and provenance documentation can prove it.

Since the end of World War II, provenance has played a large role in restitution cases in which Nazi-looted art has been recovered and returned to the families to whom it once belonged. As, famously, in the case of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Woman in Gold, which had been assimilated into the collection at Austria’s Belvedere Museum after the war, but was later proven to belong to the portrait-sitter’s niece when research in the museum’s archives (and many years of court battles) revealed crucial records proving the illegality of the Belvedere’s claim. While the drama of this case belongs to the courtroom and troubled history of the painting’s rightful owners, the proof of its authenticity and ownership relies on the quiet but assertive evidence found within the archives.

While I’ve digressed from “what I do,” the above example underscores the irrefutable importance of provenance and archival records when it comes to the long-term stewardship of documentation. In a more humdrum way, records simply allow museum staff to keep track of their collections and to provide context to art historians and researchers looking into the history of a work or its particular owners. Until recent decades, all of this information was created on paper and stored in filing cabinets for easy access, but now that new technologies have changed how we create, share, and keep information (and when I say ‘information’ I really mean our cultural heritage), we need to establish a way (or ways) to actually preserve it, which leads me to…

My Project: A New Paradigm for Born-Digital Museum Records

My project at the YCBA focuses specifically on born-digital (created on computers) records that document our permanent collection’s history: information contained in what are referred to in museums as ‘object files’ and are cared for by curators, reports of an object’s conservation made by conservators, and the registrar’s intricate documentation of a work’s purchase and its movement within and outside the museum when it’s loaned to another museum for an exhibition.

Traditionally, correspondence between an art dealer and a curator would have been typed up and mailed; now, it’s more common to correspond over email and to browse through electronic catalogues. Do these get printed out? Sometimes? Maybe not? These questions leave gaps in an object’s history that may seem miniscule in the present moment but add up and set the stage for the erasure of our objects’ lives in the present (i.e., soon-to-be-past).

And while we have developed systems and software to preserve born-digital records, these practices are mostly used by digital preservationists and archivists–so what about the things that aren’t sent to the archives? This is the question that sparked the development of my project.

It’s common practice in most American museums for art documentation to be stewarded by individual departments, and in cases where an Institutional Archives exists, only SOME records are taken in (such as exhibition files and staff email accounts), and only once their period of active use has passed; object files, conservation reports, and the collection management database (the YCBA uses The Museum System, aka ‘TMS’) are considered ‘permanently active’ and are used or referred to by staff as needed.

Since digitally created records are at a higher risk for loss than their paper counterparts, they require extra care at an early stage. I see my role is that of an envoy archivist, sharing and implementing tricks of the trade outside the walls of the Archives; it’s an interdisciplinary venture that requires a collegial and collaborative attitude and a willingness to learn how other professions operate. I come in peace!

So Far, So Good

In these first three months of my project, I’ve conducted interviews with staff to assess their recordkeeping practices and to form a picture of what kinds of digitally-created documents I’ll be working with as I develop a process for them to save and send records to our preservation system (called Preservica). I’ve been learning how to use Preservica myself, taking online training courses and working side-by-side with Yale’s Digital Preservation Services team. The questions on my mind include: how will we get the records from Point A (staff computers) to Point B (Preservica) and maintain the easy access they’re used to and allow for updates to files; what is the best way to preserve information in a regularly used database like TMS; and how do I communicate the importance of digital preservation without taking a deep dive into a jargon-filled wormhole?

The outcome of this work will hopefully result in a new system to care for museums’ digitally-created provenance and a commitment to ongoing stewardship–this project is not an endpoint but the beginning of a new way to care for and ensure the survival of fine arts-related heritage.