Collecting the present: digital code and collections
Sebastian Chan, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Australia, Aaron Cope, Mapzen, USA
In this paper, Aaron Cope and Seb Chan deconstruct their acquisition of code and 'living software' for the permanent collection of the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian's design museum and explore its implications for the future of collecting and conserving 'living' systems.
Beginning in 2013 with the addition of an iPad app, Planetary, Cope and Chan have been working to update the museum's collection to include born-digital examples of design. Unlike other museums the approach that Cope and Chan have taken is novel - and natively digital - in that it has collected the 'final version of the 'object' along with earlier versions, change logs, and bug reports in a manner that enables their active exploration and use. Further, working with the donors/designers, the final code is open sourced. The original codebase now exists printed in OCR-A font on acid-free archival paper in a climate controlled storehouse - as well as on GitHub where it can be 'read', interacted with, and downloaded.
This paper explores issues around the acquisition process, legal rights, source code repositories as preservation tools, emulation vs hardware vs concept propagation, collectivised ownership and preservation, and the intersection of curatorial practice and digital workers in museums.
“…their capacity to be accepted evidence” – Henry Lowood
The popularity of ‘design’ in the early 21st century and its transformation from an adjective to a verb offers museums who describe themselves as ‘design museums’ a series of affordances unlike those of art museums and history museums that remain bound to ‘hero objects’.
Lucas Verweij (2013) writes:
The word “design” previously denoted a position on style. Alessi produced “design” coffee pots and Dieter Rams created “designed” electrical appliances for Braun. The term was reserved for intensive and often Modernist-looking products that you bought in museum shops. Back then design was still an adjective, not a verb. In the Anglo-Saxon world, by contrast, design was a container term for all sorts of creative disciplines. That definition has since gained in popularity and all creative professions are now grouped under the umbrella of design. Everything has become design, and design is everywhere. Apart from that semantic victory, the popularity of the profession is such that it is now absorbing and assimilating other professions. No longer is its scope confined to interior, graphic or product design. Now it also encompasses social, interaction and food design. Then we have design thinking and service design, the end products of which can be a service, a mentality or a procedure. That widens the scope of design further to include process, distribution, retail and organisation.
In a design collections, then, there is a growing tolerance, even an embrace of a ‘post-objects’ curatorial practice – in part to begin to embrace this broader, more populist notion of design.
Discussing MOMA’s acquisition of the @ symbol, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli (2010) writes, “The acquisition of @ takes one more step. It relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that “cannot be had”—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @—as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection … Tino Sehgal’s Kiss presents interesting affinities with @ in that it is mutable and open to interpretation (the different typefaces one can use) yet still remains the same in its essence: it does not declare itself a work of design, but rather reveals its design power through use; it is immaterial and synthetic, and therefore does not add unnecessary “weight” to the world. A big difference between the two pieces is the price, which brings to an extreme the evanescent difference between art and design. Being in the public realm, @ is free. It might be the only truly free—albeit not the only priceless—object in our collection”.
Even these ‘post-objects’, it turns out, have accession numbers (in MOMA’s case. 151.2010), weight and are subject to institutional claim. Their presence in a museum’s collection becomes instrumental.
The Victoria & Albert Museum’s rapid response collecting strategy is important, too, as it signifies a major institution’s shift to acknowledge that the environment for, and purpose of collecting objects has shifted towards ‘instrumentality’. No longer can objects be collected simply for their long term significance (or scarcity), but for the conversations that they enable the museum to engage in the contemporary moment.
Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital, Kieran Long (2013), explains:
The rapid response collecting strategy is a new strand to the V&A museum’s collections policy, which can respond very quickly to events relevant to design and technology. The traditional way that the V&A collects objects is based on the idea that an object would prove its value over time by becoming a part of design history, being frequently cited in books and so on. These ways of proving an item’s value obviously take time. We felt that the world works a little bit differently these days. There are global events that take place and have a bearing on the world of design and manufacturing, which give certain objects a certain relevance at that moment.
In some other museums these ‘useful’ objects may previously have been included in the remit of Education teams, but rarely accessioned into permanent collections and thus invisible to scholars (and collection databases).
For all the debate surrounding the intangible nature, the “@” symbol and its inclusion in MoMA’s collection, it is still an object that can be made manifest in a discrete canonical representation. The ability for the “@” symbol to be reproduced in a variety of materials or typographers may confuse the idea that museums are in the business of collecting singular masterpieces, but this dilemma has been at the root of design collections since the beginning of the industrial revolution, if not before.
The larger issue facing design museums is that more and more of the products “made” by design practitioners now lack any form at all. These include things like systems design, service design, experience design and interaction design which are, as Verweij points out, core to our understanding of design but which often lack anything resembling a material form that might be collected or exhibited. Further, given the volume of draft or process evidence – usually artifically distinguished in collections as ‘archives’ – that may accompany something like a systems design, museums will probably soon be forced to contemplate exhibiting those documentary archives, and their finding aids, as the objects themselves.
Collecting and preserving design – not just the digital elements – but the field as a whole is beginning to resemble the preservation of ‘intangible heritage’ (endnote).
The Cooper-Hewitt, which is in the final stages of undergoing a physical transformation from a decorative arts museum located inside a historic mansion house, into a ‘national design museum’ is grappling with many of these issues. The origins of the Cooper Hewitt’s historical collections share parallels with the new instrumentalist collecting practice of the V&A. The two wealthy Hewitt sisters collected from Western Europe, principally France and Italy, to build a collection that would enable the teaching and transferral of decorative arts making and production skills. In Eleanor Hewitt’s ‘Making the Modern Museum’ pamphlet of 1919, she writes:
The salient point is, that the objects are there for use, to be worked from, and, if so desired, to be removed from their positions and placed in any light … Naturally constant use will have a tendency to damage, even destroy certain objects … but … if in that time an artistic tradition passed on … the existence or non-existence of these objects will not seriously matter, and during all that time the Museum will have been fulfilling its destiny. (Hewitt, 1919)
More than ever before, Eleanor Hewitt’s desire to see a museum’s collection used and made useful, is able to realised.
Planetary: the Object
Planetary was the first product of a short-lived company called Bloom, which operated out of San Francisco between 2011 and 2012. Founded by Ben Cerveny, Tom Carden and Jesper Andersen the company sought to work with leading artists and technologists in the field of data visualization to create small, tailored and elegant applications to depict and make meaningful the ever-increasing amount of data and metadata that shadows and often defines individuals in their day-to-days lives. Writing at the time of the company’s launch Cerveny said:
We’re building a series of bite-sized applications (instruments) that bring the richness of game interactions and the design values of motion graphics to the depth and breadth of social network activity, locative tools, and streaming media services. . . These Bloom Instruments aren’t merely games or graphics. They’re new ways of seeing what’s important.
The first of these products was Planetary, an application which would represent a user’s music collection as a series of solar systems and galaxies. For this project Bloom began to work with the artist and designer Robert Hodgin, who would soon go on to join the company as Creative Director. During the company’s short lifespan Planetary would be downloaded over 3 million times and remains available to users, via Apple’s AppStore, today.
Planetary visualizes a user’s music library as a series of celestial bodies. Songs are moons, albums are planets, artists are suns—and the orbits of each are determined by the length of albums and tracks. Their brightness represents their frequency of playback; songs and artists played less frequently than others drift further and further away, over time, from the planets or suns they orbit. Planetary is also a working music player and the time it takes for a moon to orbit a planet is governed by the length of the track that moon represents. The surfaces of planets and moons are modeled dynamically by using random sampling of a recordings “album” art to generate 3D terrains. Writing on the Bloom website, Hodgin describes the process of rendering planet surfaces this way:
1) Grab a rectangular block of pixels from around the center of the album art. The size and position of the block you grab would be based on the number of tracks that album has combined with a integer representation of the album name. This way, the planet representing Stateless’s album ‘Matilda’ should look the same on my iPad as it does on yours. If the album art is missing, we skip right to step 3.
2) Make it a mirror image by doubling the image but horizontally reversing one side. This is a quick and easy way to deal with the seam line that what would appear if you just used the non-mirrored version. The seams are still there but their impact is minimized by the mirroring.
3) To make the planet surface a bit more rugged and rough, we add in some additional texture directly on the image. This additional texture is derived from images provided by NASA. We use combinations of photos taken of the surface of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and the cloud patterns from Jupiter. These extra details are burned into our album art graphic.
4) Finally, we add a cloud layer. As we haven’t found a fast enough way to do dynamic clouds (maybe on the iPad 3 or 4?) we ended up using prepared graphics of the earth’s cloud layer, some modified images from NASA’s Blue Marble venture, and some zoomed and cropped textures from our own Flickr images. This cloud layer is actually rendered as a separate slightly larger sphere so it can rotate independent of the planet.
The moons are done similarly. The moon textures are even smaller crops from different parts of the original album art. So with the above example for the Matilda album, you might end up with moons that are solid red orbiting next to a moon that is purple with a blue stripe.
Acquiring Planetary as simply a graphic design object would have been relatively straightforward, but would have sacrificed an important element of the application: the interaction design and experience of manipulating and affecting a dynamic three dimensional system using a touchable interface. Additionally we would have forfeited the opportunity to examine how those sorts of intangible properties are best preserved at all.
All of these issues were relevant not least because with the release of iOS 7: approximately six months after the acquisition was completed, Planetary stopped working on iPads, which were upgraded to use Apple’s then-newest operating system.
So, as part of the preservation strategy for the acquisition, we opensourced the code that runs Planetary. We chose the liberal Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license which allows users to freely download, modify and redistribute copies of Planetary without first requiring the consent of the Cooper-Hewitt or the donors. The choice of the opensource license was as deliberate as the choice to open source to code itself.
The source code was published using the Git version control system on the GitHub service. Using a version control system like Git allows the Cooper-Hewitt to preserve a single authorial copy of the source code while still offering a way for scholars and amateurs alike to download and investigate and even alter replicas without requiring additional museum resources or incurring the risk of damage to the original “object” in our collection.
We hope that by fostering a first attempt to develop strategies to bridge the technical and conceptual gaps separating past and present software development we will provide an example for how to continue this process in the future. The benefits accrued by the ability for software and hardware industries to frequently “shed their skin” and start anew still outweigh the costs, and that is the landscape in which museums will continue to try and preserve objects in for the foreseeable future. To that end we see the ability and freedom for third parties to play and experiment with – to become comfortable and familiar with – Planetary’s source code as integral to any efforts to recruit developers in our preservation aims. Will some of what we see be still-born or not in line with the museum’s thinking? Probably. Will they be worth it in the long run? We choose to believe so.
We are also fortunate to be able to have an ongoing relationship with the donors, in particular Tom Carden, the former CTO of Bloom, who has agreed, for a time, to review and decide whether any third-party contributions fulfill the spirit of Planetary. In that way we see the acquisition as an ongoing process, or a living document. We hope that this sort of close collaborations with living artists and designers can help both museums and the public better understand the issues and identify the priorities when collecting and preserving complex and interdependent systems. We believe that these types of acquisitions will increasingly become the norm for all museums.
We see both the software and hardware that Planetary were last designed for as simply being the then-best representation of the application. That Planetary ran on and iPad 2 running iOS 4.0 tells us something about the historical circumstances under which the application was created, but we do not think that these facts define what Planetary is or was trying to be. Had Bloom survived longer as a company they would have almost certainly released an Android version of Planetary and then what? Which one would we have acquired? Both of them? Only the iOS version because it is not so much the genesis of the project but the first manifestation of it? What if the Android version, by virtue of whatever hardware or operating system level optimizations it enjoyed, better embodied the spirit of the project?
Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections, Film & Media at Stanford University Libraries, Henry Lowood (2013), writes:
There is also anecdotal evidence from museum and other exhibitions that visitors who did not grow up with historical computer technology prefer to use and experience updated versions. In light of these various observations, it is difficult to argue that a digital repository should be preoccupied with delivery of the Authentic Experience as part of its core mission. A better use of limited resources would be to insure that validated software artifacts and associated contextual information are available to researchers who are inclined to do this work on a case-by-case basis. Put bluntly, digital repositories should consider the Authentic Experience as more of a reference-point than a deliverable, as a research problem rather than a repository problem.
Consider the following hypothetical question: Should the temples at Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, be restored using 3D printed materials or holograms or laser-etched stones? Neither are solutions as far-fetched as they may seem at first. When you consider that the original temples were built using any and all available technologies at the time (including the availability of cheap labour) in the service of the temple as a finished work do we not simply fetishize the hand-crafted nature of its production by refusing to consider a mechanical reproduction? Most things were constructed by hand at the time the temples were built, but given access to contemporary tools and technologies what might those same architects and builders have constructed? The point of asking the question is not to suggest, definitively, that we should restore Angkor Wat with 3D printed materials but to point out that the question forces us to be able to articulate what we are trying to preserve and to account for and judge the how of the preservation methods accordingly.
Planetary: Curatorial file
Archival approaches attempt to collect as much context at the time of acquisition, in a way that museums often do not. The Australian National Film & Sound Archive, in collecting interactive media from Australian companies, artists and creators, requests in its Deliverables Deed considerable additional material alongside the work itself.
Where a Deliverables Deed is in place, requested materials include the work plus a range of documentation and information (such as an Electronic Press Kit [EPK] and scripts). To suitably support archiving a complex digital object, a range of additional materials (documenting and supporting the work itself) are also likely to be required. These include:
Documents and Elements
• Video Screen Captures
• Screen captures
• Creator statements
• Audience experience documentation
Descriptive and Rights Information
Functional, Structural and Technical Details
• Structural information
• Structural maps
• System diagrams
• Production workflow diagrams
• Functional specifications
• Technical requirements
• Technical specifications
• Interaction behaviours
• Instructions and guides
Any additional lists of assets, metadata plus checksums are also important. If the work requires external inputs, such as a dataset or if it is sensor-driven, it would also be advisable to include an example dataset or a bit- stream of the raw sensor data. This may enable the work to be re-presented in the future. (Langley, S., Carter, T., Davies, M., & Gilmour, I., 2013).
Where some of these criteria are similar to those requested of media artworks in art museum collections, the inclusion of storyboards, wireframes and audience experience documentation are increasingly important to socio-technological acquisitions as well. The ability for organisations to draw a clean line separating acquired objects, supporting materials and archival content is becoming less and less clear.
Writing of the Planetary acquisition, Cope (2014) wrote:
We open sourced the code but we also released the complete revision history of that code, including all the bug reports, so that people could see both how and why the decisions were made and to understand the trade-offs that created Planetary. As a design museum those trade-offs are paramount to the things we collect. For all the stories of Steve Jobs’ perfectionism the history and success of Apple is based on what they’ve been able to accomplish in the moment and not the magic happy pony world any of its employees wishes were possible . . . . We also released as many of the draft sketches and notes as we could get our hands on. In a way we open sourced the curatorial file that all museums keep for their objects. I hope we, and other museums, do more of this. This is where the velocity of an object’s history within an institution is encoded and that institution or curator specific understanding of an object, cut across time, is what distinguishes one museum from another.
In the case of Planetary all of this material is made publicly available – the ‘curatorial research file’ remains a living archive with full public access. At this stage it is difficult to understand the implications of this degree of transparency for future researchers.
Acquiring Planetary required some alterations to the standard acquisition forms used by the museum. In order to be able to release the source code as part of the interpretative and preservation strategies for the object, the museum needed a greater degree of legal certainty than to acquire the object. Releasing the source code, especially under a BSD license, required warranties from Bloom LLC that all underlying code and media assets did not carry forward any IP that might prevent this. As the distinction between fine art and commercial work continues to break down, we expect that this will not be an isolated incident. As we asked our legal counsel at the time, “would Christian Marclay be required to warranty that he had legal authority over all underlying components of his media collage works such as The Clock”? Or in the light of photographer Patrick Cariou vs. collage artist Richard Prince, would a museum acquiring a work by Prince be required to seek legal clarity before it reproduced it by making the work available online?
These discussions were complicated by Bloom LLC no longer being in operation and the warranties needing to be asserted by the private individuals behind the project who, conceivably, would not receive limited liability protection if unauthorised underlying IP was to be discovered in the future.
Throughout the acquisition process we were mindful of Ben Fino-Radin’s cautionary tale as recounted in his report “Digital Preservation Practices and the Rhizome ArtBase”. Fino-Radin (2011) writes:
Without action, obsolescence creates an air of mythology – an inaccessible history. In the case of [Golan Levy’s] Floccus, the responsibility of maintenance and care of the work fell upon the artist. Levin expresses frustration that time normally devoted to creating new work is instead spent repairing old projects (G. Levin, personal communication, March 11, 2011). This example is illustrative of the predominant imbalance of responsibility among the stakeholders in the new media community.
The inability or unwillingness of creators to “repair” past work or to ensure its longevity in the face of technological change is also a problem that will only grow in scope in the years to come. Although some artists (such as Lincoln Schatz) are known to be proactive and engaged in the ongoing preservation and maintenance of their work they are likely to remain the minority, at least in the short-term.
We believe that the dynamics described by Fino-Radin will only increase in complexity as more and more of the works that museums collect, regardless of their institutional focus, are born digital. Because digital works are exist in an equally digital life-support system, or ecosystem, absent preserving the entire dependency chain for a single digital object museums need to be able to conceptualize and articulate a strategy for demonstrating some kind of tangible proof for those objects in their collection which lack the physicality typically associated with our collections.
These concerns are not only those of art and design museums but all museums and archival institutions charged with preserving our increasingly intangible hyper-networked, mediated present.
Antonelli, P., 2010, “@ at MoMA” in Inside/Out, Museum of Modern Art, http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2010/03/22/at-moma
Cerveny, B. 2010 “In Bloom”,
Cope, A., 2014 “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”,
Cope, A. & Donohue, R., 2012 “Archiving Flickr and Other Websites of Interest to Museums” in Proceedings: Museums and the Web 2012, http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2012/papers/archiving_flickr_and_other_websites_of_interes.html
Fino-Radin, B., 2011 “Digital Preservation Practices and the Rhizome ArtBase”,
Hewitt, E., 1919, The Making Of A Modern Museum, New York Wednesday Afternoon Club, available at https://archive.org/details/makingofmodernmu00hewi
Hodgin, R. 2011, “Creating new worlds”,
Langley, S., Carter, T., Davies, M., & Gilmour, I., 2013, “Managing Multiplatform Materials: Selected Case Studies” in Cleland, K., Fisher, L. & Harley, R. (2013) Proceedings of the 19th International Symposium on Electronic Art, ISEA2013, Sydney.
Long, K., 2013, “V&A acquires Katy Perry false eyelashes as part of new “rapid response collecting” strategy” in Dezeen, http://www.dezeen.com/2013/12/18/rapid-response-collecting-victoria-and-albert-museum-kieran-long/
Lowood, H., 2013 “The Lures of Software Preservation”,
Schatz, L. 2014 “About Lincoln Schatz”,
UNESCO, 2003, “Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage”,
Verweij, L., 2013, “It’s only a matter of time before the design bubble bursts” in Dezeen,
Patrick Cariou v Richard Prince, Gagosian Gallery, Inc, Lawrence Gagosian (Docket No 11-1197-cv), US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 2013 http://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/Cariou_v_Prince_-_2d_Cir_2013.pdf
In defining ‘intangible heritage’, UNESCO writes, “cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” (UNESCO, 2012).
Chan, Sebastian and Aaron Cope. "Collecting the present: digital code and collections." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published March 19, 2014. Consulted .