Blog 2017/18

  • Born-Digital Museum Records: What’s My Project All About? Friday November 10th, 2017 cate.peebles

    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.

  • An Introduction: “I can’t believe this is my life.” Friday October 13th, 2017 Elise Tanner

    After nearly 11 years living in Chicago and finally finding a winter coat that actually kept me warm, it was quite surreal to get picked for the National Digital Stewardship Residency in Art. Within roughly 60 days, I managed to completely change my life and I packed up my four cats, one dog, and one boyfriend (now fiancé!), and moved across country. Now that I’m settled in Philadelphia and I have official business cards—hard proof that I am, in fact, not dreaming—the surreal feeling has been replaced with a general sense of “I can’t believe this is my life but start believing it because you’ve got work to do.”

    Here are a few of the “I can’t believe this is my life” moments from the first 2 months of this residency:

    1. Immersion Week. Five eight-hour days of digital preservation-related presentations from truly remarkable leaders in this field, including: Sheila Rabun, Community and Communications Officer, IIIF; Jacob Nadal, Director of Preservation at the Library of Congress; Anne Young, Manager of Rights and Reproductions, Indianapolis Museum of Art; George Blood, George Blood LP; Emily Rafferty, Head Librarian and Archivist, Baltimore Museum of Art; Sumitra Duncan, Head of Web Archiving Program, Frick Art Reference Library; Dragan Espenschied, Preservation Director, Rhizome; Virginia Rutledge, PIPE Arts Group.
    2. Getting our official resident portraits taken on the great staircase at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
    3. Every time I’ve been introduced as the “NDSR Art Resident working with the time-based media collection.”
    4. Seeing the time-based media collection in person for the first time.
    5. Touring the Museum’s offsite storage facilities.
    6. Meeting the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden (OMG).

    Let me backtrack a bit and explain why this project exists and why I’ve subsequently changed my entire life for it.

    The time-based media (TBM) collection is the fastest growing collection at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. With this fact in hand, I almost need not say more. It advocates for itself. It is why this project exists and why I’ve been selected to dedicate my time to nothing else for 12 months.

    At present, there are just under 100 time-based media (TBM) artworks in the Museum’s permanent collection, and a number of TBM acquisitions are already on the horizon. However, there is no infrastructure in place to properly handle, preserve, or manage TBMs. To date, these complex artworks have been acquired using existing museum policies and practices, which are insufficient to meet their documentation and preservation needs.

    In the Summer of 2017, the Museum hired Mona Jimenez and Martha Singer as outside consultants, two experts in the field of TBM preservation. Together, they performed an eight-day assessment of the TBM collection and compiled their findings and recommendations in a comprehensive report. On my first day, I was handed this report and it has since become the jumping-off point for all of my work.

    In 2 months I have: collected and read hundreds of resources; caught up on the status of existing institutional knowledge of the TBM collection; interviewed numerous stakeholders; and applied to present at two conferences (so far) and made arrangements to attend four. I have played with a FRED machine, explored Preservica, and become the go-to person in my office for questions about The Museum System (TMS). I recently performed a visual inspection of the collection’s 16mm films, begun the process of sifting through the collection’s Object Files, and collaborated with the Contemporary and Conservation Departments on writing an executive summary of the assessment to present to  the Museum’s Executive stakeholders. I’ve attended the Museum’s Contemporary Conservation Working Group meetings, plan to attend the ARLIS Mid-Atlantic meeting later this month, and will be visiting the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota for a Host Enrichment Session to learn about Mia and their NDSR Art project.

    Obviously, there’s a lot to be done, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

  • Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico, and the Responsibility to Act in Times of Crisis Thursday September 28th, 2017 Coral Salomón

    When access to information translates to the urgent need to act in the face of a humanitarian crisis.

    As part of my NDSR Art residency at the University of Pennsylvania, I am working to develop guidelines to protect this nation’s achievements for the historical record. Part of what drives my dedication to this profession is the belief that by preserving and providing access to knowledge we can learn about and understand others. And through that understanding, foster tolerance and empathy. This professional tenet, the belief that access to information can enact meaningful change, is the reason I am sharing the following information.

    Last week, Puerto Rico, my home, was hit by Hurricane Maria. The category 4 hurricane bisected the island from the southeast to the northwest, and was the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the US. It devastated our electric grid, caused major flooding, provoked a dam failure, destroyed our roads, and prompted an island-wide telecommunication meltdown.

    Worse than the hurricane, however, has been the lack of response.

    The hurricane hit more than a week ago. Aid has not yet been distributed across the island. In Mayagüez, an area still affected by the shortage of telephone service, dialysis patients lack the electricity needed for treatment. The electric generators in the island’s hospitals are running out of diesel. The few locations offering essential services are being overwhelmed. People do not have access to insulin and other critical medical supplies.

    Meanwhile, the lack of electricity means people cannot take out the cash needed to buy food. Water is in short supply. People living in small towns like Las Marías lack potable water and are running out of food because they are trapped in their communities, due to the obliteration of the roads. These situations keep on replaying across the island.

    People are dying.

    The hurricane claimed at least 10 lives on the island, but the ineffective response is killing more.

    The news coverage has been slow to pick up the dire circumstances on the ground. Meanwhile, the federal government has lacked the urgency to take decisive action.

    I have been asked to recommend places to donate, but the extent of the crisis demands legislative action to ensure long-term recovery.

    Reach out to your representatives and ask them what they are doing to help Puerto Rico.

    Tell them to:

    • Put a stop to the bureaucracy that is preventing food and other emergency supplies on the ports from being distributed across the island.
    • Make sure that the currently waived Jones Act is repealed. This law has hindered the economic growth on the island even during the best of times and its restrictions will be draconian as Puerto Ricans work to recover from the devastation.
    • Urge FEMA to deploy additional rescue and relief resources, as well as provide cell towers to allow the communication of residents and relief workers.
    • Pass bankruptcy relief legislation and negotiate public debt relief immediately. People’s lives must be the government’s priority while the island recuperates from this humanitarian crisis.

    We are US citizens who have served in every major war, who contribute to the progress of this country, and when Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean, we rose to the challenge of helping our neighbors in need. But, above all we are human beings that deserve better. The current situation is critical and the response to this crisis has been slow and inhumane.

    If we don’t try to do everything in our power to help Puerto Rico, we will have contributed to a national catastrophe. The historical record will show that the US failed.


    Text “Resist” at 50409 and copy/paste the list above. It only takes 5 minutes. You can also call your representative at 202.224.3121.