Saturday, August 21, 2010

Going Digital

I've just accepted a place on the UK's first course in digital asset management at King's College London. Until earlier this summer, I had been working in paper conservation (that is, repairing and preserving paper-based artefacts for museums, libraries and archives). Why go digital?

To begin, this is not so much a departure from traditional preservation as a complementary set of skills that also embrace the worlds of information technology and management. At the same time, while a foundation in preservation theory via conservation is most welcome, going digital represents a great leap, without doubt, and there are several reasons why I've chosen to do this.

I wasn't really aware of digital assets and their management in a cultural heritage context until I attended the Mellon Symposium in Conservation Science at Harvard Art Museums earlier this year, entitled Technical Conservation Issues of Time-Based Media. The keynote speaker, Pip Laurenson, Head of Time-based Media Conservation at Tate, put forward two simple facts: first, Tate (and other large modern art galleries) now acquire more time-based media than traditional media - that is, over 50% of their total acquisitions each year; second, there is currently no formal training to deal with the preservation demands of time-based media (for a definition of time-based media, and further discussion, see here). I've also been drawn to the ubiquitous nature of digital assets and the wide potential for the application of the skills associated with their management and preservation, and my next prompt came from a very different source.

For some time I've been interested in preservation concerns beyond the museum, gallery or library institution, specifically in relation to cultural heritage in developing countries. Such concerns took me to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where I had the pleasure of meeting Rory Stewart, then Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and founder of the Turquoise Mountain Project, and his colleague Gerard Russell who, following diplomatic service in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last seven years, has dedicated himself to promoting cultural understanding and interaction between the English-speaking public and the Arab/Islamic world. These conversations, in conjunction with discussions amongst conservators strongly engaged in the international cultural heritage and development arena, lead to a realisation of the limited application of traditional conservation to said arena, yet also clearly highlighted its potential as a foundation to be built upon in order to tackle wider preservation concerns.

These are just a couple of the reasons I have for venturing into digital preservation, to which I might briefly add an acknowledgement, on a less philosophical note, that digital asset management inevitably appears to meet current market demands. I now hope to use this opportunity to document a brand new formalised training process at King's that attempts to meet the growing demand for this skill set. Indeed, the first step is knowing exactly what that skill set should be, and the possibilities seem numerous. At the same time, I also want to explore the relationships between traditional and digital preservation, information technology and management practices, all the while keeping an eye on their potential implications for international cultural heritage and development concerns.

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