A Decade of Webdesign
21/22 January 2005, Amsterdam
Piet Zwart Institute
Institute of Network Cultures
Transcription of the talk given by Franziska Nori on January 21st 2005 at the panel "histories of web design"
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.
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 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, 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 f.e. websites 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 artefacts 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 artisany, 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 s web sites
But due to the conference s scope, today I will mainly restrict my talk to the website collection.
A further challenge we undertook concerned the presentation of digital culture outside of its originary context. We conceived exhibitions dedicated to single phenomena of contemporary digital culture, re contextualizing them in a physical museum space. With the I love you exhibition we focused on the cultural implications of hacking and computer viruses; with adonnaM.mp3 we analysed the phenomenon of peer to peer and filesharing and through Digital Origami we presented the so called demo scene to mention just some of the projects.
Further digitalcraft designed and implemented the museum s technical infrastructure, including public Internet access over every floor through terminals, wireless Internet through all the collections, WAP accessible object texts. We created two computer labs for public learning programs and conceived the museum s online presence as well as digitalcraft own project site.
One of our assignments also consisted in creating a database and a content management tool for the over 60.000 (non digital) objects owned by the Museum of Applied Arts.
This experience was fundamental for the creation of the future archive of born digital items we than approached. While the non digital collection, only displayed a limited amount of objects though the internet and was mainly meant for professionals only use, the digitalcraft site was conceived as a public repository and as platform for an interdisciplinary knowledge exchange between museum experts and the existing online communities.
Back in 2000 the main challenge consisted in elaborating the already consolidated notions of traditional collection development, expanding them for the internet based collection of digital items. The goal of the project consisted in archiving items on the base of veracity, quality and appropriateness of the content in order to create a trusted repository . A clear structure, a well founded selection and easy access were some of our major concerns. The goal of the collection reflected the general mission of the museum: to preserve institutional memory as well as to create cultural meaning.
The digitalcraft site currently provides access to the following contents:
1. The web design collection:
- a selection of 50 browsable / completely active websites (archived with all their technical applications, stored on the project s servers, complete with their metadata descriptions)
- 100 sites, in form of a commented linklist; site are rated, visualized with 3 screenshots each
- collection of designer of the month features
2. The computer games and emulators collection:
- 170 games and roms for different console platform and mobile phones
- emulators of all mayor console platforms (ie Amiga, Atari ST, Nintendo, C64,...and their technical descriptions)
3. The IS Berlin community Archive:
- index sites of the former Internationale Stadt Berlin community (active from 1994 - 1998), first levels of the html structure and contents have been reconstructed and are accessible online.
4. Labs' documentation:
- Documentation of all public learning programs and their results realized in the two computer labs established throughout the three year activity at the museum.
5. Exhibitions documentation:
- Documentation, catalogue contents and images of all exhibition projects realized.
But lets go back to the web design collection.
During first research phases our team monitored the international web community (through sites like K10K, linked up, etc) analysing 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 of the scene but still 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 once like keyword clouds.
The digitalcraft collection classified the selected sites under these ten categories:
- Independent projects
2. Selection method:
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 artefacts 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 f.e. provoke can be avoided through additional post processing. Therefore we were able to collect also dynamic sites instead of excluding them as the Archive.org has to. But the main benefit of manual selection is the critical treatment an editorial team adds to each item, facilitating a knowledge transfer for other professionals as well as the general public.
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 and selection criteria might contribute to counterbalance this factor.
Therefore, as one measure, we started programming a rating system, a browser based tool, which would give users the possibility to rate and to comment on the collected sites and our evaluations. 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:
I would like to briefly single out some criteria which distinguished the approach digitalcraft chose for its collection from other projects.
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.artisits 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 roots 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, 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. Therefore we chose to subdivide the collection creating categories and did not opt for a more intuitive navigation as ÄdaWeb for example did.
The Wayback Machine of the Archive.org is 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. 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 isn¹t an easy interface for accessing it.
Unlike the Archive.org 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 de code interfaces. We relied upon than an explicit added value that museum repositories may provide lays in the additional information published along with the item itself, permitting an evaluation and contextualisation 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. digitalcraft s outreach covered the globality of 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 the Archive.org does we followed the library model seeking the permissions of domain owners or copyright holders when gathering content for preservation.
3. Long term preservation and long term accessibility of digital resources:
The pace at which technology renews and outdates is enormous. Hardware platforms, operating systems and browser versions outdate, programming languages, formats and software applications become antiquated making the accessibility of digital products 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. A first solution here is collecting and preserving old hardware along with all related software, which implies an enormous amount of financial and man power resources. 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. 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. Parallel we established a partnership with the University Freiburg to create an archive containing historical and contemporary hardware emulators, browsers, plug ins and various software for the means of the design collection).
- 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 approx. live span of 5 7 years even network servers and hard drives do not last than much longer. The constant migration of data to recent supports is therefore a considerable part of the work. Digitalcraft created a double backup by copying all data on DAT tapes, as well as on their servers)
- Durability of access to the repository (old databases can t be accessed after approx.10 years. Also for the database systems constant migration of data might become necessary. digitalcraft based its technical implementations in open source technology relying upon an integration of MySQL for the content management system and PHP4 for its database)
- Interoperability and compatibility with other repositories (hard and software standards are necessary to share data with other institutions. Here again the use of open source technology seamed preferable)
- Metadata (a catalogue of information describing the single item. Digitalcraft adapted international standards for description formats such as CIMI, Dublin Core or AMICO and broaden them for the means of a digital archive)
4. Project phases:
The initial collection, consisted in a link based commented list. For each item we included a data record containing the actual link to the website, its description, a ranking between 1 5 according to the four mentioned selection criteria (Navigation, Animation, Interaction, Graphic), 3 screenshots for each item and some meta description formats. Working with a link based collection would require an enormous effort for maintaining the current collection accessible. The ephemeral character of the web meant that sites were in constant change or even disappeared, making a long term archive practically impossible.
Consequently, the collection was rearranged in a second phase, following the principle of long term data saving. 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 authorisation to collect the site. The holder was asked to provide us the website 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 digitalcraft.org site, therefore creating a redundant security copy.
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.
The technical requirements we asked authors for were:
- the index html
- all image files
- all text files
- all flash files or similar (when used)
Elements like databases and chat functions connected to a site were excluded in this 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 (f.e. CD ROMs, DVDs and e publications), 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 mid 80s to address issue of digital preservation of cultural heritage. A variety of transnational projects for metadating, inventarisation and cross platform accessibility have produced quite good results.
Since end of 2002 a project called Archiving the Avant Guarde have been initiated, in this case patronized by the Berkeley University, trying to constitute a consortium of 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 (Walker Art Centre) or Gallery 9 ( SFMOMA) , all in the area of art and net.art, 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 webdesign, it often offsprings a net activistic intention which by definition is reluctant to be integrated into an institutional context as the museum is (see: Olia Lialina, "Die Kunst reisst aus", in DU Magazin, 2000; Natalie Bookchin, "History of Netart")
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 runme.org 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.
Why engage in the preservation of digital objects?
Most societies create their identity through the awareness of their historical background. Museums and libraries engage in the preservation of artefacts 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 artefacts 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 communication.
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 favoured the implementation of new sectors in the local community creating wealth.
If museums nowadays would lead more self confidently a 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; what if museums provided Digital Right 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?
Should we not act on this before Bill Gates does? Before the last public space is virtualized, commercialized, and privatized?