Material–Code–Stack: Conserving Born-Digital Objects and their Infrastructures
How can museums maintain the infrastructures supporting born-digital objects in their collections and, in turn, conserve these objects considering their external dependencies? In the conservation of born-digital objects such as web artefacts, software and other computer-based media, substantial efforts have been made to mitigate the risks of obsolescence (Falcão 2011-12) and manage change once these industrial components do, inevitably, become unsupported (Engel & Phillips 2019; Laurenson 2006). However, the conservation of various infrastructures that underpin, but are fundamentally external to, these objects remains poorly understood, making their inter-relational identity difficult to sustain in the museum environment. My research project fills this gap by addressing the conservation needs of born-digital objects not only in terms of their material body and encoded environment, components which are most often subject to intervention (Guez et al. 2017; Rechert et al. 2013-2017), but also their technological and knowledge infrastructures, or their “stack”—a term originally used in computing to denote the infrastructural layers supporting the execution of software. Operating at the intersection of technical art history, conservation and media archaeology, my research will (1) develop a theoretical framework on the “stack” as a support system that combines proprietary technology and its communities of users; (2) expand on existing software-based art conservation techniques—including code migration, reverse engineering, decompilation, disk imaging and emulation/virtualisation—using the above framework; (3) apply and evaluate these critically informed techniques based on four case studies from the Victoria & Albert Museum. This project will therefore help shape conservation policies and procedures at one of U.K.’s largest collections, the V&A, which currently lacks an integrated care strategy for borndigital objects; as well as lay the epistemological foundations for navigating the inter-relational identity of these objects, which will, undoubtedly, soon become an indispensable part of art history.
Primary supervisor: Dr Hélia Marçal, UCL
Secondary supervisor: Dr Pedro Gaspar, Victoria & Albert Museum