Custodians of Digital Memories: Digital Preservation in museums

Sian Woodward, MoDA's Collections Manager, talks about the importance of digital preservation

Illustrations by Jørgen Stamp CC BY 2.5 Denmark

Many people think of buildings and physical objects when they think of a museum and its collection. What they may not consider is how technology has provided opportunities for museums to create digital surrogates for fragile artifacts, greater access to cultural heritage, and greater engagement with audiences. More and more of our cultural heritage is also “born digital”, including photographs, audio, video, and websites. What are the implications of this for the future of our digital memories?

The Digital Challenge

In our personal lives, we create vast amounts of digital material without much thought about being able to find it or use it in five or ten years, half knowing that ‘maybe we should back up our files somewhere in case the laptop/phone stops working or gets stolen’. When news breaks of hospitals or governments losing digital files to viruses, ransomware or human error we are critical.

Imagine if our cultural heritage suffered the same fate. “Does anyone have a copy of Beowulf? Mine’s corrupted and won’t open.” “Sorry, I only have one flash drive so I overwrote it with the Mona Lisa”. You may think that no one would let that happen to such treasures, but it appears that the recordings of the original moon landing footage beamed from space, before it was converted for broadcast, were probably taped over by NASA. You can watch an animation about ‘How Toy Story 2 Almost Got Deleted’. The need to manage all this digital material, and think about its long-term survival is long overdue.

Addressing Digital Skills Gaps

In light of all this, and the need to assess and address digital skills gaps within the profession, The British Museum held a workshop on 26th June 2017 as part of the research it is conducting in order to develop a Heritage Lottery Fund Skills for the Future programme: The Digital Heritage Discovery.

There is a recognition that museums need to develop essential digital skills, tools and workflows and tackle key challenges of digital management, from securing at-risk legacy data to maximising the value of digital assets such as photographs.
This is therefore a great opportunity to both invest in a new generation of diverse museum professionals, and also help museums to develop the resources needed to face the digital challenges ahead. I attended the workshop as the Collections Manager for the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, but also with my professional experience of digital management over several years.

I was at the first International Digital Curation Conference in Bath in 2005, at a time when the term digital curation was still quite new, and the Digital Curation Centre had just been set up to provide researchers with useful tools, advice and services to help them properly manage their data. Even though there was some recognition that the task ahead was daunting because of the pace of data generation, I don’t think anyone there would have anticipated how pervasive digital would become in all areas of life.

As museum professionals from around the country gathered at the British Museum on Monday, we outlined current digital preservation practices in our institutions, discussed challenges and resources required, looked at what might be considered best practice in the wider heritage sector and considered the skills that would be needed in order to develop a trainee programme in this area. There were recurring themes that emerged:

  • Every area of a museum is creating digital assets, but no one is really managing them
  • Most museum staff work with digital tools, but there are varying levels of proficiency with these, and training and development opportunities are self-selective
  • Often museums are constrained by an institutional IT department making decisions for a governing body with different requirements, leading to a reactive approach to managing and preserving digital assets
  • Funding is often focused on an end product like a website or app, with no room to experiment or even fail, and no idea of discovering what the best digital outcome might be through the development of the project.
  • Funders are more aware of the need for sustainable outputs, which have become requirements of funding applications, but without support for the infrastructure and skills needed to make digital sustainable.

A Co-ordinated Approach

It is clear that we face similar challenges, and that we will need similar approaches. It would therefore make sense to form a network through which essential digital skills, tools and workflows are developed and shared, and this is one of the aims of the funding bid the British Museum is developing. There are already good networks, sources of information and conference sessions out there, including but not limited to:

  • The Collections Trust has resources around the idea that digital isn’t different
  • The Digital Preservation Coalition is a great source of advocacy, training, tools and collaboration
  • The Museums Computer Group has a great discussion list as well as events through the year

You could no doubt add others, but the sector as a whole needs to work out how to deal with the digital backlog and our digital future. It is not enough to have an enthusiastic champion on staff, and sending everyone to have training on digital-tool-of-the moment only works if everyone is using it enough to remember what they were told. In the same way that we cannot keep every historical object in our museums, we cannot save every piece of digital data; we need to have a strategy and this needs to become as second-nature as cataloguing and caring for physical objects.

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