Over the past several years, the acquisition of time-based works (artworks that utilize film, video, audio, or digital technology as essential components) by Smithsonian museums has increased dramatically. Realizing that today’s technology is completely changing how individuals and artists represent, portray, or express themselves, the Smithsonian is intent on making Time-Based Media Art (TBMA) a collecting goal and a constant presence in its exhibition spaces, along with producing scholarly publications to deepen the visitors experience with the works.
Just as rapid technological advances and innovations often render yesterday's technology obsolete, time-based and digital artworks present new and complex technical and theoretical challenges to the professionals charged with collecting, cataloging, managing, conserving, and exhibiting them. Beginning with the March 2010 symposium "Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art," a three-day series of lectures, panels, and working groups, the interdisciplinary Smithsonian Time-Based Media and Digital Art Working Group was formed to develop protocols and strategies, with input from peer institutions and practitioners nationally and internationally, for the acquisition, installation, and long-term care of time-based and digital art.
Many of the tasks associated with the preservation of media artworks are highly technical in nature and require a collaborative cross-disciplinary approach to their care. As a result, collections stewardship is dependent upon the development of workflows and protocols that can lie far outside the traditional object-based collections management systems. Caring for these special artworks has required extensive collaboration and cooperation.
Since 2010, the TBMA Working Group has launched a resource website, hosted roundtables, pursued several valuable learning opportunities, and conducted surveys with the goal of identifying the most prevalent collections care and staffing needs as they pertain to these unique artworks. In addition to the issues confronted by art museums, these initiatives provided opportunities to recognize the equal vulnerability that history and science museums have to data migration that can create the loss of important historic or scientific references. Concerns include technological obsolescence, software incompatibility, and equipment failure, all of which present a serious threat to this important and rapidly growing category of the Smithsonian's diverse collections. Interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial to finding significant solutions of mutual benefit.