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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