Franziska Nori

Matthew Fuller: The next speaker is Franziska Nori, from the Kulturbüro, which from 1999 to 2003 were responsible for the new media and digital culture department at the Frankfurt Museum of Applied Arts. digitalcraft is quite a special organization, in that when we were researching this conference we were looking for Museums that were actively archiving and reflecting upon web design in a systematic manner. And one of the things we found is there is actually very little of that kind of work done. Peter mentioned already, but in terms of reflecting on web design as a practice the digitalcraft project is really almost unique in terms of trying to gather, in a reflective way, examples of web design. digitalcraft also has a reputation of taking on other tough jobs such as having conceived the first show(s) on computer viruses and another show recently on mp3. So I’d very much like to welcome Franziska here to represent their work and to talk about some of the issues related to the question of a systematic collection of web design, and I think in the Stedelijk Museum here, again this is a question very pertinent to the role of the museum in relationship to digital culture, so Franziska.

Franziska Nori: My talk today will address the issue of establishing collections of born digital work (work of digital origins) within the museum context. I would like to use the concrete experiences of the digitalcraft project made at the Museum of Applied Art Frankfurt to raise some critical questions about the general changes that a museum faces in a communication society and that we would need to reflect and act upon. I structured my talk the following way: first I would like to give you an overview on the whole of the digitalcraft project. Then I would like to briefly describe the approach that we chose for the collection, especially looking at the web design collection, subsequently sketch some of the aspects concerning long term storage, and finally to define some distinction criteria which distinguish our project from other museum or institutional projects .

The digitalcraft collection evolved from the context of the Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt, a museum with an over 150 year old history. The museum has traditionally five departments devoted to the various expressions of craftsmanship throughout cultural areas and across epochs. Traditionally the collections served as repositories of exemplary pieces to be shown to apprentices by their master craftsmen and to a broad public to admire the variety of crafted items displayed and therefore re-contextualized within the museum.

In 1999 the former museum’s director, James Bradburne, postulated a paradigm change for the institution “Museum”, reacting to the evident crisis institutions go through if looking at general attendance (number of visitors), their average age and the duration of their stay. The broader change management foresaw also the implementation of a new department, which was called digitalcraft. Over a time span of approximately three years, digitalcraft’s mission consisted in defining aspects within digital culture to integrate in the established museum’s work and finding adequate ways for its mediation to a broad public.

The tasks we started defining for our project sprang from the traditional assignment inherent to museums: researching, interpreting, collecting, preserving and exhibiting. But the challenge consisted in re-defining these activities within the framework of the contemporary information society and its changing demands.

Museums do have the purpose to preserve and present historical objects, fulfilling their function as part of a cultural memory, but in the society of information they find themselves facing an entirely new set of questions, regarding the culture of new media and internet. How can we collect contents that are ephemeral and transitory, which by definition are in a constant process of modification like for example web sites or net art projects? What criteria should we consider in order to decide the relevance of an object in terms of cultural history? How should digital objects be permanently stored in the face of the rapid innovation time of software and hardware? How will we document social aspects like interaction and or communication streams? And finally, how best to present digital artifacts and media-enhanced communication phenomena to a museum public.

Back in 2000 we were confronted with the challenge of creating such a digital collection without any analogue comparison to an already existing museum project. We started a process of trying different solutions, in terms of technology as well as in terms of approach, learning by making mistakes and modifying them. Because we worked within the context of a museum of applied arts, the focus was on digital applied arts, on objects of everyday life, so called examples of digital artistry, objects that combine form and function. Beyond that, we investigated phenomena that applied to the production process itself, reflecting upon changes of conditions and circumstances for it, as well as on phenomena in the fields of skills and tools used for manufacturing digital craft.

The collection comprehends the following sections:
– Germany’s first online community (Internationale Stadt Berlin)
– Computer games and emulators
– Designer’ web sites

But due to the conference’s scope, today I will mainly restrict my talk to the web site design collection.

A further challenge we undertook was this department called digitalcraft, outside of its original context. We conceived exhibitions dedicated to single phenomena of contemporary digital culture, such as the “I Love You” exhibition you already mentioned, focusing on implications of hacking and computer viruses; or the exhibition “adonnaM.mp3” which analyzed the phenomenon of peer-to-peer and file sharing, or with a project called “Digital Origami” which presented the so-called demo scene.

Further we had to design the whole infrastructure of the Museum of Applied Arts to actually act and start a project with the scope of digital culture. So that meant a total infrastructure of access in the public area of the museum. That meant of course web sites; that meant wireless access; WAP text objects definitions, all that sort of basic work.

Another of our assignments also consisted in creating a database and a content management tool for the over 60.000 non-digitals objects owned by the Museum of Applied Arts. This experience was fundamental for the creation of the future collection of “born digital” items.

The digitalcraft site currently provides access to the following contents:

The web design collection, (the one we are going to focus on a little bit today). This contains a selection of 50 browsable, completely active web sites, which part of them aren’t retrievable anymore on the internet. Archived with all their technical applications, stored on the project’s servers, complete with their metadata descriptions)

Then we have 100 sites, in the form of a commented link list that we rated, and visualized with 3 screenshots each, and last we have a feature of the month, which contains approximately ten designer features.

The second section is dedicated to computer games and emulators. We included 170 games and so called ROMs for different console platforms and mobile phones as well. Further all emulators for major platforms like Amiga or Nintendo or Commodore were all integrated with technical descriptions.

A Further section is devoted to the Internationale Stadt Berlin community, and this is actually a totally different set of challenges. Here we were looking at a community platform, with chat, with personal sites, with all different sorts of communication strategies involved as well as presentation of own work. So that is a whole different challenge when looking at archiving and storing.

A Further section is a documentation of the three years lab activity. We had two labs established in the museum with learning programs for adults and youngsters. The programs and exemplary results produced by the labs are documented in the site. All the exhibitions we produced including all catalogue essays and images are documented on the site as well.

So lets look a little closer to the web design collection.

During first research phases our team monitored the international web community (through sites like K10K, linked-up, etc) analyzing their selections, observing trends, examining the vocabulary used for descriptions. One of the difficulties concerned the need to create neologisms to describe new aesthetic phenomena inherent to web design: we wanted to avoid the “cool” jargon that Peter already mentioned, that the scene is still using, and capture the singularities of style and functionality.

To structure the web design collection we chose a sub-division in categories related to the original function or field the projects came from, and within each category an alphabetical order. Potentially also other structures could have been chosen, like chronology, nationality, or more intuition and association based like for example keyword clouds.

The digitalcraft collection was classified and selected the sites under these ten categories:
– Advertisement
– Agencies/groups
– Awards
– Brands
– Children
– Designer
– Independent projects
– Movies
– Music
– Playgrounds

Dealing with expressions of contemporary art and culture and therefore working with the complete lack of historic distance posed a variety of challenges: the responsibility to operate a historically relevant selection, for instance. A further difficulty lied in defining defendable strategies of selectivity when it came to the enormous quantity of current digital production and the ever growing flow of information.

The method we chose was based on manual selection, collection and metadata treatment of all items. We explicitly did not employ automatic harvesting (like search bots or spider software) to capture material from the web. We selected with the goal of defining unique artifacts that would be of value to current and future scholars, researchers and designers. An advantage of a man-made selection is that exclusions based on technical limitations that spider software for example provokes can be avoided through additional post-processing. Which of course requires a lot of time a lot of manpower and if possible foundation funding.

Therefore we were able to collect also dynamic sites instead of excluding them as the has to. But the main benefit of manual selection is the critical treatment an editorial team adds to each item collected.

The downside of a manual selection (operating on the principle of exclusion /inclusion) is the risk of underestimating the historical or scholarly value of certain items, which is in general a problem when collecting contemporary cultural products.

Transparency of argumentation can be one of the possibilities to counterbalance this risk.

Therefore, as one measure, we started programming a rating system, a browser based tool, which would give users on the internet the possibility to rate the comments that we were doing and on the projects of their colleagues. The consideration here was to maintain the status of competence central to a museum institution but at the same time applying democratic principles of public participation, which is characteristic of the internet. The explicit intention was to open a forum stimulating the public debate on the issues we addressed.

Some of these criteria we applied to select items for the web design collection were:
– Originality and uniqueness of concept
– Quality of visual representation
– Design solution in relation to usability
– Design solution in relation to the content and context
– Technical innovation
– Inventiveness in navigation

The criteria we based our selection on evaluated the following aspects of the sites:
– Navigation
– Animation
– Interaction
– Graphic

As you might find yourself these are quite soft evaluations. It is not something rigid so there is a lot of subjectivity in this. Therefore it was important for us to find a way of contextualizing in giving a description to each item, which was possible to be discussed with time passing by.

We monitored the web to retrieve sites within their functional context. We selected particularly interesting examples of current web design instead of commissioning the sites for our collection, as for instance the art museums SFMOMA (with its e-Gallery) or the Walker Art Centre (with Äda Web and Gallery 9) did and still do.

Benjamin Weil (curator at the SFMOMA) for instance commissions single net.artists to produce work for the museum. In close collaboration with the artist, museum staff creates a documentation of the piece, interviewing the author and therefore creating a notation of the piece through technical descriptions, descriptions of functionality and of the artistic intention. This way a “map” of the work results which can be preserved along with the usual metadata categories in the museum’s permanent archive.

Peter Weibel as well employs a similar method to ensure that artwork done for the ZKM can be re-constructed by future generations. He explicitly demands that artists produce a full documentation of their work. The accuracy of this method and the human work involved is quite complex and rooted in anthropological fieldwork as well as in strategies historically applied when documenting land art, happening and performance art.

In terms of collecting digital object of every day use, like we had to do, I believe the aspect of retrieving from an autonomously developing, extra-institutional context is crucial in order not to eradicate the close relation of the sites to their original function.

We were looking for a clear way of structuring the collection in its several levels to permit users an easier access to contents. So actually here I’m not showing you all of the layers of our collection, which you are welcome to visit online anyways. We chose to subdivide the collection creating categories and did not opt for a more intuitive navigation as Äda Web for example did.

A further project was the “Wayback Machine” of the that’s an internet archive initiated in 1996. As of January 2004, it stored around 300 terabytes of data, which include more than 1,200 short films (in MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 formats) and more than 30 billion web pages, which for us was something not even approachable. The site has an enormous success within the user community. 5 million visits a day are the average. However using the archive is not such an easy task for researchers. While there is plenty of data to look at, there isn’t an easy interface for accessing it.

Unlike the we could not and did not choose to collect everything produced for the web. We opted rather for a manual selection, metadata treatment and critical comments on all collected sites and for an easy to decode interfaces. We relied upon that the explicit added value that museum repositories may provide lays in the additional information published along with the item itself, permitting an evaluation and contextualization in terms of scholarship over time.

A further characteristic of the digitalcraft collection is that it does not limit its scope to a strictly national production, as for instance National Libraries do. Our outreach covered the globality of the internet but restricted its scope to the discipline of the museum for which we developed the collection: craftsmanship and applied arts. A further key issue concerned permission when collecting web sites. Unlike what the does we followed the library model seeking the permissions of domain owners or copyright holders when gathering content for preservation.

So although this is now going to be even a little bit more technical I have to address some aspects concerning long-term storage and long-term accessibility to the digital resources.

The basic problem is that the pace at which technology renews and outdates is enormous. Hardware platforms, operating systems and browser versions outdate fast. Programming languages, formats and software applications become antiquated making the accessibility of digital projects a real challenge.

Some main technical concerns to consider in formulating a preservation strategy are: durability of access to the contents for example old computer games can not be played anymore if the original console is not preserved and therefore the tape cannot be read. I mean we all have lost our old game computer consoles. Maybe in the cellar, maybe we gave it to our little brothers and mainly the problem is, if the console doesn’t work anymore there is no way to access it. So one solution here is collecting and preserving old hardware along with all related software, which implies an enormous amount of financial and manpower resources. There is a museum in Germany the (Computerspielemuseum Berlin for games and the Nixdorf Museum Paderborn for old hardware) they tried to do that. They tried to preserve explicitly hardware. And speaking with colleagues they make clear that this is an effort, which is totally getting out of hand. So a second solution rather relies on the principle of emulation. It is relatively easy to emulate hardware, but it is more of a challenge to preserve functioning software. There have been lots of conferences with international colleagues addressing exactly these sorts of challenges. In case of a web site collection designed to endure over several decades it would be crucial to preserve the various operating systems versions, the specific software, all plug-ins along with the sites to insure their operability. In case of the games digitalcraft started collecting emulators. In parallel we established a partnership with the University Freiburg, in Germany, to create a collection containing historical and contemporary hardware emulators, browsers, plug-ins and various software for the means of long-term storage.

So the second point is the physical deterioration of storage media. If data is stored on storage media like CDs, DVDs and DAT tapes etc. we have to keep in mind that they have an approximate life span of 5-7 years even network servers and hard drives do not last that much longer. A constant migration of data is necessary to preserve accessibility to the content. We for example created a double back up by copying all data on DAT tapes, as well as on their servers. But mind you our project was only functioning for three years. So we didn’t have to migrate over a decade as for example the has to, because they started way earlier than we did.

A third point is durability of access to the repository. Old databases can’t be accessed after approximately10 years. Also for the database systems constant migration of data might become necessary. Therefore we based our technical implementations in open source technology relying upon an integration of MySQL and PHP for applications.

The second last point is interoperability and compatibility with other repositories. So what are you going to do if you’re looking at sharing data and knowledge with other colleagues of other institutions if they use different platforms? Hardware and software standards are necessary to share data with other institutions. Here again the use of open source technology seems preferable as well as the implementation of well-known standards.

(And standard is also a crucial issue when looking at metadata. Metadata is cataloging of information describing the single item. It is necessary to adapt, or it would be better to adapt international standards for description of each item such as CIMI, Dublin Core or AMICO.)

The initial collection, consisted in a link based commented list. This is how we started. The ephemeral character of the web meant that sites were in constant change or even disappeared, making a long-term collection practically impossible. Consequently, the collection was rearranged in a second phase, following the principle of long-term data storing. To insure methodical registration and broad documentation of all items, we developed a catalogue of 34 description formats in accordance to existing standards.

We contacted the designer /copyright holder asking for the authorization to collect the site. The holder was asked to provide us the web site’s data and to fill in a questionnaire. The data was either being mailed to us (via email, CD ROM or FTP access) or we download it using special software. Afterwards, we mirrored the site on our web server and made it accessible by placing a link on the site, therefore creating a redundancy for security reasons.

digitalcraft aimed to preserve the full functionality of the collected web sites. To achieve a nearly full browsability, we needed to preserve all functionalities through their scripts. As far as the page was connected to a database, an offline version had to be made and absolute links needed to be adjusted. That is something the cannot do because they are doing it in an automatic way.

The technical requirements we asked authors for were:
– the index html
– all image files
– all text files
– all flash files (in case they used them) or similar

Elements like databases and chat functions connected to a site were excluded in this, at least, phase of our project.

Mainly archiving projects are in the purview of National Libraries. The efforts primarily concentrate on the preservation of digitized, only recently also on born digital material, all produced in the surroundings of academic and scientific research. The taxonomies, thesauri and metadata standards existing today largely derive from efforts made by libraries more than by museums. In Europe the European Commission started as early as early as the mid 80s to address issues of digital preservation of cultural heritage. A variety of transnational projects for metadating, inventorization and cross platform accessibility have produced quite good results.

Since the end of 2002 a project called “Archiving the Avant-Garde” has been initiated, in this case patronized by the Berkeley University, trying to constitute a consortium of especially American institutions to find common standards for preserving born digital material.

Except some rare examples all in the area of contemporary art, the reality within the museum world generally looks different. Museums are still undertaking great efforts to digitize their large non-digital collections and sometimes misunderstand these efforts as doing justice to digital culture. Only recently museums have started implementing media art into their collections and exhibitions. It is not that long ago (I am talking of the last 20-25 years) that photography has been able to finally achieve a status of museum collectable; video art (with it’s by now 30 year old tradition) only recently started to, not to mention so called new media or digital art.

Projects like Äda Web or Gallery 9 are all in the area of art and, are very valuable examples of how to integrate latest expressions of art into traditional museums work, experimenting also with new notions as for example online curation. Web based art, though, has an added problematic in comparison to for example web design, it often springs off of a net activist intention, which by definition is reluctant to be integrated into an institutional context as museums are. There are some fine articles written by actually Olia Liliana, who is here and Natalie Bookchin exactly about this problematic.

But still, there are no museum projects, which methodically try to undertake the challenge of collecting digital objects, especially in the area of web design. Maybe the only two projects worth to be mentioned here is the repository, an art database based on private initiative, although the founding members rather describe their mission to serve “art development, rather than for its storage” and secondly the project “the Database of Virtual Art” headed by Dr. Oliver Grau at the Humbold Universität Berlin.

To conclude, my question is why engage in the preservation of digital objects if it is so much of challenge, and I think Peter already mentions this problematic as well.

Most societies create their identity through the awareness of their historical background. Museums and libraries engage in the preservation of artifacts and manuscripts. The purpose is to create repositories for researchers, historians and scholars, contributing to the process of generating the collective memory and a “sense of historical place and meaning” as Bruce Sterling expressed it.

The importance of public collections lies in facilitating the contingency of studying and interpreting the past and therefore assuring the possibility to generate visions for the future.

Researchers are increasingly concerned with the possibility of a “Digital Dark Age”, a period in the not so far future when manuscripts, digital epistemology (mail communication) and artifacts will not be retrievable anymore. Ever more scientists have noted the importance to preserve these ephemera to provide context to events, scientific and artistic concepts and media enhanced human networks.

As the European Community has already declared digital preservation of cultural heritage being of general political interest, it now is the turn of national cultural politics to act, to ensure that not only national libraries but also museums realize these targets. Institutionally supported projects mainly arise in regions, which have already recognized that their economical dependency increasingly shifts from an industrial to a service oriented economy. In a broader scope media culture contributes developing new skills in a population that is less and less dependent on the production of primal resources and object oriented goods. Ireland is a very good example of how a precise political strategy has favored the implementation of new sectors in the local community creating wealth. Matthew is laughing (because he knows its reality could be even better).

If museums nowadays would lead a more self confident discussion about their role, especially within the contemporary information and communication society, they would have to recognize the great potential which lies in operating a change management in terms of redefining their social function and mission.

The so-called digital lifestyle will produce a large change of expectations by contemporary users of museums. Users will consume art either on site (in a physical space) or in the virtual space and maybe integrate and export parts of it into their personal life.

Museums could act as a main content repository; and the question here is, what if museums provided Digital Rights Management services for authenticated digital contents? How about a museum as competence center and application provider? What if museums and cultural archives would start to build up distributed knowledge systems? Could a distributed system like a peer-to-peer network complement an already existing centralized information archive? Could museums work as open discussion platforms, acting as moderators between trans-disciplinary discourses and experts?

So actually my last question is should we not act on this before Bill Gates does it? Or before the last public space is virtualized, commercialized, and privatized?