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CMNS 386: Special Topics: Digital Media & Cultural Heritage Conservation

Course overview

This course will explore issues raised by digital media and other forms of "time-based" media for preserving memories of today (and of the past) for tomorrow. It will examine the place of new media in cultural heritage preservation from two different perspectives: computer-based media as a tool for preserving and disseminating other forms of cultural heritage (ex. "digitization" initiatives) and the preservation of "works" created using digital media or time-based media as cultural heritage. How have new uses of rapidly changing technologies transformed notions of what constitutes cultural heritage and influenced ways of preserving it?

(Terminology: The terms "time-based media", "variable media" and "contingent objects" are used by conservators and curators of contemporary art, technology and culture to refer to a variety of practices, not all of which are based on digital media. For example, "time-based" art includes performance and works created using processes that involve interaction with publics as well as creative practices using ephemeral materials. "Variable media", a term used in media studies and the museum field includes creative processes using impermanent materials, processes based on systems that rapidly become obsolete (like internet protocols) or other types of work in which the object is not the principal record of the creative act).

Mandates and professional codes of ethics developed in the twentieth century for cultural heritage institutions (like museums and libraries) were largely premised on storage of documentation or objects as records of creative acts and lived experience (ex. artworks, specimen collections, data sets, publications and so forth). New technologies for creating, recording and disseminating images, text and sound offer possibilities for expanding what is collected by heritage institutions, for example, documentation about so-called "intangible" heritage (such as performed and spoken arts). However digital media involve impermanent materials, systems and hardware that rapidly become obsolete and may rely on interactive interfaces with "users" or "performers". In such cases conservation traditions developed for older forms of cultural heritage are difficult and sometimes even impossible to respect.

New conservation strategies include migration (the practice of transposing works into new media, such as converting analogue recordings to digital format, or upgrading software), emulation and reinterpretation or re-creation (for example in performance art). Such strategies often entail overt decisions to prioritize some elements of original works and preserve some types of cultural heritage while sacrificing others. How are such decisions made? Who can (or should) make them (creators, collectors, publics...)? When conflicts arise what principles prevail? Contemporary conservation issues related to digital and time-base media provide rich opportunities for rethinking ethical, legal, aesthetic, scientific, technical, economic and political issues related to cultural heritage preservation.

Course syllabus

Fall 2006