Preserving and sharing born-digital and hybrid objects from and across the National Collection

Lead Research Organisation: Victoria and Albert Museum
Department Name: Contemporary


As part of a set of foundational research projects under the theme 'Towards a National Collection: Opening UK Heritage to the World', the Preserving and Sharing Born-digital and Hybrid Objects project aims to contribute to the creation of a unified national heritage collection that includes born-digital cultural heritage.

Contemporary culture is increasingly digital. From websites, applications and social media, to digital film, to digital artworks and design tools, creative practitioners in a range of fields are increasingly working with digital or hybrid physical-digital skills. However, this prevalence of digital culture poses a significant challenge to collecting organisations which are responsible for acquiring, preserving and making culture available to the public, now and in the future. In considering how to make our national collections accessible to the world, we must consider born-digital and hybrid material as an increasingly important part of those collections, otherwise we risk failing to preserve the vast majority of our contemporary culture for future generations and entirely omitting this important part of our culture from initiatives to make that culture accessible as widely and as meaningfully as possible.

This project seeks to address the challenges of born-digital and hybrid collections by bringing together expertise in a range of different digital cultural types - from archival and library material to film and complex digital design. It will focus on three specific and shared challenges: collections management - the policies, governance, systems and standards needed to support digital collections; digital preservation and conservation - the skills, software and hardware needed to preserve it for the future; and meaningful access and experience - the development of modes of access that do not merely represent digital culture as static, but 'live' as we experience it. It will involve a combination of desk-based research, reviewing and producing reports on current practices, a series of workshops, and the development of two technical pilots. Collectively this research and these outputs will lay the foundations for the future major research initiatives needed to take this forward on a sector-wide scale.

The research will be undertaken through an interdisciplinary team of academic and collections-based researchers including representatives from the V&A, BFI, Tate, British Library and Birkbeck, University of London. It will also draw in a number of key industry professionals and will bring national and international participants to a series of workshops that will both involve knowledge sharing and will identify recommendations needed to preserve and make accessible born-digital cultural heritage.

By harnessing the collective skills, knowledge and challenges of individuals and institutions involved with different types of born-digital and hybrid cultural heritage, the research project will ensure that born-digital culture remains an integral and research-led part of the national collections of cultural heritage. It will also identify and respond to the need for the development of digital skills and literacy across the cultural sector, so identifying future needs and laying the foundations that are needed in order to truly and inclusively open up the UK's national collections to the world.

Planned Impact

This project will benefit the following key groups:

Cultural organisation professionals:
This research will benefit curators, conservators and collections management professionals at national collections who currently have responsibility for born-digital and hybrid collections. The research reports and recommendations will enable curators and collections managers to analyse their existing collection in new ways, providing them with a much-needed survey and set of suggestions for developing strategic priorities in this area. The research will also help to build understanding of the systems and standards required to support and manage born digital collections. It will provide guidance for collections seeking to acquire born-digital and hybrid objects, and will enable institutions to collect with the confidence that there is existing practice-based research in this area to be tested and built upon. The collaborative, collection-based nature of this project will also encourage other museum professionals to seek guidance beyond the reports and recommendations through contact with the research team.

A critical aim of the project is to interrogate and experiment with creating more meaningful public access to born-digital culture, through exhibition, experiences and, specifically in the context of Towards a National Collection, digitally. As a result, the most significant beneficiaries will be members of the public. While new modes of online access are only able to be piloted at this small scale of project, the foundations will be laid for future developments and a review of examples of best practice developed that will lead to the development of more meaningful encounters for the public with digital collections. At a fundamental level, the project also works to ensure that audiences of the future will have access to digital culture and that it becomes inaccessible or meaningless due to a failure to tackle its inherent challenges.

Another crucial aspect of the project is interrogating and developing frameworks for digital conservation as an emerging professional field. The research will therefore greatly benefit conservators who currently have responsibility for digital culture, and will help to define a framework for minimum viable skills needed in an institution with such collections. It will also benefit young conservators entering the professional field who are likely to face this challenge increasingly in their career. Across cultural organisations, it will help to develop digital literacy and skills that are much-needed across the sector.

Digital Preservation & Conservation professionals:
In addition to benefiting conservators, the workshops and subsequent report on the current state of digital preservation and recommendations for conservation skills development will benefit the digital preservation community, as it will problematise current approaches and allow for new avenues for research, possible case studies, and adaptations to current practices that will need to address the issues reported and shared among different cultural organisations. It will both build on the work of and benefit organisations such as the Digital Preservation Coalition, and its circulation to other bodies, including Rhizome and Documenting the Now (US) will have international impact. By inviting such organisations to participate in project workshops, the project will also develop stronger, international and national connections between such organisations and cultural institutions.

UNESCO (and other cultural NGOs):
The outputs of this report will provide a basis for UNESCO and others to revise their current definition of intangible cultural heritage, or to introduce a new category - digital heritage - to account for the new knowledge this report, and the subsequent prototype will surface. This would represent a significant benefit and shift across the cultural heritage sector internationally.


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Description COVID Impacts.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the project led to an 8-month delay to its delivery. One of the co-Investigators contracted COVID-19 in spring 2020, which caused a significant interruption to their ability to participate in the project and posed initial delays. Alongside 72% of V&A's staff, the Principal Investigator was furloughed in April 2020, effectively bringing the project to a halt only 2,5 months after it had started. The PI returned to work 1 day per week only in August 2020 and full-time in November 2020. In addition, the impact of the pandemic on University teaching and increased workload brought about by a shift to online delivery, the exceptional pressure on the Technical co-Investigator due to increased requirements for website support in response to repeated Museum closures/reopening, as well as the ongoing pressures on the cultural sector have meant that all co-Is' capacity has been limited since work on the project has restarted. Initial focus has also been on re-planning the project and managing the impacts of its delay.

The recruitment of the Postdoctoral Research Fellow was also been impacted by the pandemic. In March 2020, the V&A introduced a recruitment freeze in response to the emerging crisis. This freeze, combined with the furlough of the PI, meant that it was only possible to recruit for this post in October 2020. A Postdoctoral Research Fellow was appointed in November 2020 and started on the project in January 2021. Project timeline has been adjusted accordingly and work is now progressing on all aspects of the project.

Findings to date:

A literature review was completed in April 2021. It focused on current and emerging practices in the collection and preservation of complex born-digital and hybrid digital objects within museums, archives and collecting institutions. It spans a number of object types, including digital and product design, architecture, art, computer generated and visual effects, and videogames, as well as investigations into objects for which there are relevant case studies within collecting institutions, such as smartphones, social media, 3D printed objects, GIFs and Virtual Reality (VR).

A first report was published in January 2022, and was disseminated at a public event for museum and sector professionals and the academic community. Through desk research, interviews, and a set of case studies, an analysis of the challenges of collecting born-digital and hybrid objects was derived, with a focus on digital preservation, collections management and access and meaning through display. An understanding and presentation of the legal and industry challenges for born digital objects is a novel contribution for the sector, generating the term 'big tech heritage' as a means to understand the specific barriers the heritage sector face when aiming to collect heritage from corporate bodies.

Generated from the research, a set of recommendations for developments in policy and curatorial and collections practice, and the opportunities for future research were put forward, which was a key objective of the research. These placed a focus on experimental collecting in order to futureproof rapidly disappearing digital culture heritage and an encouragement on resourcing that enabled cultural institutions to experiment with new types of collecting processes which understood the boundless nature of digital objects and develop new theoretical frameworks. Other recommendations encouraged an exploration of collaborative stewardship models for objects that go beyond the traditional institution involving communities that could enable digital preservation, and more research investment into 'big tech heritage' to enable us to acquire this relatively unexplored area of digital collecting while simultaneously encouraging policies that incentivise industry cooperation.

More key findings will be delivered in next report as the final decision tree model and LinkedArt data model are due to be finalised and published at the end of March 2022.
Exploitation Route This funding will benefit the cultural organisation professionals, particularly museums and collecting organisations aiming to build born-digital and hybrid object collections. The basis for this research will also draw together research for museums studies and digital humanities scholars aiming to study digital collections.
Sectors Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Due to significant delays to this project, its impact at this stage is limited. The current benefits of research are relatively speculative, however the anticipated impacts are as follows: V&A The literature review will positively impact digital collecting practises for V&A's Collections and Research department, creating a resource on existing practises for colleagues beyond the immediate project team. BFI, Tate, British Library The literature review will also, as in the case of the V&A, inform and benefit the collecting practises of all project partners. Birkbeck The literature review has collated research around complex and born- digital design that has previously not been united around this subject, and shown significant gaps that provides opportunity for future research beyond the project.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description BFI - Co - Investigator 
Organisation British Film Institute (BFI)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution So far we have worked with McConnachie in connecting to VFX and CGI communities for the literature review.
Collaborator Contribution Stephen McConnachie, Co-Investigator, Leads on the development of 'digital preservation and conservation' project strand and facilitates collaboration with digital conservation community. Due to COVID, there have been significant delays in the project, and therefore the timeline for the project has been pushed back significantly. As yet, the data model pilot has not been planned until June 2021 whereby McConnachie's planned involvement will begin. McConnachie has been instrumental in connecting the project with practitioners in the VFX and CGI community throughout the literature review process (Jan - March 2021).
Impact As mentioned, no significant outputs due to project delays, and the assigned work package not started until June 2021.
Start Year 2020
Description Birkbeck - Co Investigator 
Organisation Birkbeck, University of London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Our research team are working with McKim as PI to write the literature review, and to select the case studies for research.
Collaborator Contribution As mentioned, there have been significant delays on the project. Co-I McKim's role is to collaborate on the delivery of literature review which is still underway (due for completion at the end of March 2021) and to collaborate on case studies which as of yet are unable to be started as access to the collection is very limited due to COVID limitations.
Impact A literature review is due for delivery at the end of March 2021.
Start Year 2020
Description Guest lecture by Dr Gabi Arrigoni at Collegio Ghislieri - Universit√† di Pavia 'Collezionare la cultura digitale: sfide e opportunit√† per ripensare conservazione e fruizione pubblica' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Guest lecture by Gabi Arrigoni 'Collezionare la cultura digitale: sfide e opportunità per ripensare conservazione e fruizione pubblica' (Collecting digital culture: challenges and opportunities to rethink preservation and access). 25 October 2021 (Collegio Ghislieri - Università di Pavia), introduced by Maria Elena Gorrini and Gianpaolo Angelini. The lecture provided an introduction to the research project, its aims, methodology and key findings. It discussed the case studies and posed questions around sustainability, futureproofing and public reception of obsolete technologies. The attendees were students, researchers and lecturers from the University of Pavia, from a variety of programmes but mostly associated with Museology and Archaeology. The lecture had an impact on their way of thinking about born-digital objects, and conservation practices. Attendees' feedback included comparisons across the preservation of physical, traditional museum objects, and born-digital ones, and extended to considerations on the materiality/immateriality of contemporary culture.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Preserving and Sharing Born Digital and Hybrid Objects 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 88 attendees from across the museum and memory institution, cultural heritage, digital preservation, academic, and other interested audiences attended an event to disseminate the initial research outputs of the project, including the first report from the project 'Preserving and sharing born-digital and hybrid objects from and across the National Collection' and the initial stages of the Decision Model for assessment of digital objects. We invited a response from Corinna Gardner, Senior Curator of Design and Digital, and a keynote response from Annet Dekker in order to reflect on the project's outcome. A 30 minute open discussion with participants raised discussions around working with larger companies on 'big tech' heritage that shared significant possibilities for collaboration and future research potential, as well as sharing important knowledge on stumbling blocks within the community on the preservation of industrial heritage.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022