Digital Audiovisual Materials at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

The reading room at the Guggenheim’s downtown offices.

I’ve spent the past two months working on my NDSR Art project at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where I’m helping to streamline the organization’s preservation and access infrastructures for digital audiovisual materials.

During this initial phase of my year-long residency, I’ve mostly worked out of the Guggenheim’s offices in the Financial District rather than at the Museum itself. Between the skyscraper views, peaceful reading room, and office Lavazza machine with its unlimited provision of cappuccinos, I’ve truly enjoyed the time I’ve spent here. Most of all, being surrounded by the people who make the museum function on a daily basis has given me a richer understanding of the museum’s inner workings and organizational structure, something that’s proven crucial to the progress of my project thus far.

A view of the Oculus from the Guggenheim’s downtown office.

And while I don’t make it uptown very often to visit the Guggenheim’s iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building, I have been able to walk around the museum on Thursdays when the museum is closed to the public, and I recently caught a glimpse of the upcoming exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future as it was being installed around the ramps of the Rotunda.

Exhibition changeover in the Guggenheim Rotunda.

First Steps: Focusing on Newly-Generated Digital Media

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The overarching goal of my project is to improve the way digital audiovisual assets – including both born-digital and digitized materials – are stored, described, preserved, and provided access to at the Guggenheim on an institution-wide level.

As I begin working towards that goal, I’ve limited my focus during the first phase of my project to the existing systems, procedures and workflows behind newly-generated media, an umbrella term that encompasses all of the exhibition, performance, and programming-related videos produced by the museum.

There are two main departments responsible for creating this kind of audiovisual content at the Guggenheim: Digital Media and Theater & Production Services.

Theater & Production Services: Event Recordings

The Guggenheim’s Peter B. Lewis Theater, part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s original architectural design.

The Theater & Production Services is tasked with recording all of the events staged at the Guggenheim’s New Media and Peter B. Lewis Theaters (shown above), which includes live musical and dance performances, lectures and symposia. Intended as straight-forward event recordings, these videos require minimal production and little to no editing. But with around 77 events to document every year, the Theater department keeps a busy schedule, and amasses a large amount of footage in the process.

Digital Media: Outward-Looking Videos

The Digital Media department is responsible for creating the art, programming and exhibition-oriented videos published on the Guggenheim’s website, Youtube channel, and other social media platforms. With most running under 15 minutes, the videos are relatively short, but they nevertheless require a higher scale of production and post-production work than the event recordings generated by the Theater department, sometimes involving multi-camera set-ups and multiple film shoots, and almost always resulting in many hours-worth of high-resolution raw video footage.

So What’s the Problem? 

Based on the interviews I’ve conducted with producers, videographers and editors at these departments over the past few weeks, I’ve learned that internal access to newly-generated video content is only really provided to those commissioning departments who specifically request it.

While the Guggenheim does have a digital asset management system that’s technically capable of supporting video storage, its implementation has yet to be thoroughly evaluated. In its absence, storage and descriptive practices have become siloed, and there is no method in place for internal staff to discover the digital video materials held by different departments.

Once a video has been published online or otherwise fulfilled its immediate purpose, it becomes virtually invisible to the rest of the organization. More often than not, it ends up sitting on someone’s hard drive with little to no identifying information attached.

And while in this scenario content creators are clearly left holding the bag, so to speak, with huge amounts of footage they have neither the room to store nor the approval to delete, it’s the museum itself that ultimately has to fund this system. Unlike video production, which has an upfront cost that’s already built into a department’s budget, the exact cost incurred when processing and maintaining digital video storage is currently unknown.

Next Steps

As I continue gathering information on the future storage solution that I will ultimately recommend to the Guggenheim stakeholders at the end of this project, I am also working to quantify the cost involved in producing and storing one hour of digital video. My hope is that this figure can serve both as a reference for content creators as they plan for the production of their video projects, and as a motivator for the higher-ups at the museum to invest in a more robust preservation infrastructure. I plan on buttressing this quantitative data with a set of ‘user stories’ that exemplify how different departments interact with and reuse video materials.

With any luck, I’ll be able to share some of these user stories with you in my next post!