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MoMA’s digital art vault

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2015

MoMA Digital Art Vault

Ben Fino-Radin of MoMA’s Department of Conservation wrote a brief post about how the museum manages their digital artworks, including a bit about how they think about futureproofing the collection.

The packager addresses the most fundamental challenge in digital preservation: all digital files are encoded. They require special tools in order to be understood as anything more than a pile of bits and bytes. Just as a VHS tape is useless without a VCR, a digital video file is useless without some kind of software that understands how to interpret and play it, or tell you something about its contents. At least with a VHS tape you can hold it in your hand and say, “Hey, this looks like a VHS tape and it probably has an analog video signal recorded on it.” But there is essentially nothing about a QuickTime .MOV file that says, “Hello, I am a video file! You should use this sort of software to view me.” We rely on specially designed software-be it an operating system or something more specialized-to tell us these things. The problem is that these tools may not always be around, or may not always understand all formats the way they do today. This means that even if we manage to keep a perfect copy of a video file for 100 years, no one may be able to understand that it’s a video file, let alone what to do with it. To avoid this scenario, the “packager” — free, open-source software called Archivematica — analyzes all digital collections materials as they arrive, and records the results in an obsolescence-proof text format that is packaged and stored with the materials themselves. We call this an “archival information package.”