At the most abstract, a museum is an ark that we are continuously packing to preserve our contemporaneous culture from being extinguished by time. But the curators of these arks face a new problem in the 21st century: How can museums preserve the apps, software, and other digital ephemera that increasingly define us as a culture? How do you preserve the intangible?
These are the problems that the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian's National Museum of Design in New York, is just beginning to explore with their first digital acquisition, an iPad app. What does it mean, though, for a museum to acquire and exhibit an object that, while real, does not physically exist?
Originally released in 2011 by Bloom, Planetary is an app which examines a user's iTunes collection and charts it across a truly cosmic scale, transforming your music library into a virtual 3-D galaxy. Each star in that galaxy represents a different artist, each orbiting planet an album, and every moon a song. Simply tapping a moon will make it play that song. It's the music of the spheres come to digital life.
By any measure, Planetary is an impressively designed app, but what led to its acquisition? Sebastian Chan, Cooper-Hewitt's director of digital and emerging media, says it largely has to do with the museum's mission to collect contemporary design ... a mission, which faces new challenges in the digital age.
"If we were satisfied to just be a history museum or an art museum, we could stay focused on the tangible, but to fill to the role of being the 'National Design Museum,' we have to broaden what we do," Chan tells me. "We are beginning to come to terms with the fact that the sort of contemporary objects that a design museum should collect are now often neither unique or inherently precious. It's forcing us to consider how to communicate both the intention and the processes of the designers behind their work."
As such, the Cooper-Hewitt's acquisition of Planetary is a far bigger deal than simply downloading an app onto a museum iPad. "Not only did we acquire Planetary's versioned source code, we also acquired the developer's change log and other development ephemera," says Chan. "This gives us the opportunity to show our visitors how the app was made, and the trade-offs made along the way in the design process."
The acquisition was influenced by a few factors. For one, it was a beautiful app that fit into the Cooper-Hewitt's historical collections of graphic and product design. Outside of just donating the app, though, Planetary's original developers over at Bloom were willing to work with the Cooper-Hewitt on an on-going basis in figuring out how to best exhibit and preserve it.
To Chan, this was incredibly important. At his previous job at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Chan had been exposed a large collection of early electronic musical instruments from the 1960s and 1970s. Although these instruments had been collected, they had not been preserved. They couldn't be heard because turning them on might destroy them. They were, effectively, big dumb objects. For Chan, it was a powerful lesson in the "fragility of the present," especially when the digital is concerned. Preserving something digital "requires experimentation."
"You can't just freeze it in Carbonite," he says.
As part of that experiment in digital preservation, the Cooper-Hewitt has made Planetary open source, to encourage software developers to modify it and port it to other systems. The app will also be exhibited to museumgoers on museum iPads when the Cooper-Hewitt re-opens after renovations in 2014. A new version of the app is also in the works that will allow museumgoers to take an intergalactic tour of all 217,000 objects in the Cooper-Hewitt collection. Not a bad start.
But Planetary's acquisition could influence more than just digital preservation. According to Chan, it could also change the way the Cooper-Hewitt and other museums preserve physical objects. For example, right now, the Cooper-Hewitt has a collection of 3-D printed chairs, but not the source code used to generate them. In the future, the acquisition of an object might not stop at the physical: the museum of the future might feel duty-bound to collect the process and software that created the object as well.
Planetary might be a modest start, but collecting digital works of design is the future of museums. It's no longer enough to pack our time arks full of big dumb objects and launch them blindly into the future. You can't preserve a digital object without preserving the technology and processes that created it. Maybe that's the curatorship we should have been trying to practice all along.
You can read more about the Cooper-Hewitt's acquisition of Planetary here.