A teacher friend of mine once said that anyone can teach anything if they stay one chapter ahead of the class. My only real teaching experience has been as a native speaker teaching English to non-native speakers; a knowledge gap that gave me a lot of wiggle room, even with my more advanced students. My friend wasn’t talking about digital preservation and this project wasn’t exactly teaching, but you can see where I’m headed….
I’ve been fortunate enough to be partnered with two dedicated women at WheatonArts and Cultural Center who are only about a chapter behind me in digital preservation. It’s been fun and challenging. I won’t use the past tense because we’re still in communication and I hope to follow their preservation efforts for as long as they’ll put up with me.
One of the more satisfying aspects of digital preservation, if you’re partial to theory, is the way theory and practice are interwoven in this work. When I sat down with the staff at WheatonArts, they didn’t just want to talk about bit-level preservation…. When an artist says, “don’t digitize my work; don’t preserve it,” what’s a responsible curator to do? Does suggesting a more sustainable file format to artists constitute interference with the creative process? WheatonArts’ mission is to draw visitors into an exploration of creativity. So far, artists guide much of that exploration by providing their own documentation of their creative processes. Resources notwithstanding, should the Center take a more active role in that documentation process? How do you represent creativity faithfully? Is a video good enough? Our early readings in this course, like Documenting Dance, ask these kinds of questions.
But what about the bits? Shouldn’t we talk about storage first? Toggling between philosophy and hurricane recovery is the joy of this work. There’s real immediate work to be done but you’re never too far from epistemology or aesthetics, either.
Museums welcome not only the opportunity but the responsibility to think through these puzzles. And it is a responsibility. Enduring (and expanded) access will mean that eventually, most visitors to museums and other cultural heritage institutions will never step foot in their buildings. Visitors won’t have the chance to reckon with an analog artifact. As objects are increasingly born-digital, the idea of faithfulness, of whether an analog object could be reassembled, will drift further and further to the backs of visitors’ minds. So, part of the job of digital preservation must be to ask these same questions that thoughtful curators have always asked.