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My mind boggles slightly at the idea of museums collecting apps. How do you display something that is, by its very nature, intangible? Why is there even a need to collect them? What criteria must they meet before entering the catalogue?

Even more fundamental, perhaps – how will they be preserved?  As I learned during a work experience placement, data that has been stored on CDs and VHS tapes has now been rendered invalid until such time when the museum can obtain the equipment and expertise to convert them to a new format. However, in a decade’s time, this current technology will become outdated – and so the cycle begins again. If apps have only been created for platforms that exist today, what will become of them in the future? What if replacement platforms or emulators cannot support them?

Furthermore, would the evolving nature of code limit the kind of apps that can be collected? Museums would only be able to acquire apps that will not need updates or patches in the future – or would they? If an update was released, would the museum’s version be updated too or left in its original state? Does this make apps ‘live’ objects, possibly subject to change over time?

There seem to be so many questions, and yet – despite reading around the subject – no concrete answers. Is this a case of collect now and think about the intricacies later?

In terms of displaying the non-physical, it might be beneficial to treat apps in the same way as performance art. Particularly in the case of a one-off event, performance art tends to be documented through mediums such as photography, video, oral recordings, and related paraphernalia – evidence that the performance took place. It gives life and solidarity to something which no longer exists in a physical form.

A similar process was used in MoMA’s acquisition of games. They also collected interviews with the designers so they could preserve their thoughts, intentions, and ideas about the product, as well as authenticating any key information that may help future conservators. Likewise, the V&A have tweets and statistics to accompany their acquisition of Flappy Bird. Such documentary elements also enable the museums to show the process behind the apps’ creation: the designs, the decisions, and the evolution of thought. This encourages you to think more about the everyday things we take for granted – especially where technology is concerned – and allows visitors to experience them from a different, behind-the-scenes angle. When something cannot be truly replicated – as may happen to the apps in the future – this kind of evidence is the next best thing, despite the ‘aura’ of the live experience being lost.

What criterion determines whether an app should enter the museum’s collection? In the case of Flappy Bird, the V&A (as part of their Rapid Response programme) argued for its significance as a world-wide, everyday object of design. This falls within the institution’s mission statement…

“To be the world’s leading museum of art and design. To enrich people’s lives and inspire individuals and everyone in the creative industries, through the promotion of knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the designed world.”

… and as the creative industry is currently one of the fastest expanding and developing industries, it seems sensible to cater to – and spark interest in – this particular market.

As Kristian Volsing discussed in her blog post, now the V&A has acquired one app there will inevitably be more to follow (perhaps this was part of the argument for its acquisition – that it would be the start of a new generation of digital objects?). I think having more apps in the V&A catalogue will justify the procurement of Flappy Bird, because it currently seems a bit obscure and out of place as a standalone item.

The V&A and MoMA are not the only museums to have started an app collection. Interestingly the Smithsonian, who acquired their first app in 2013, wanted to incorporate their acquisition into the visitor experience. This demonstrates one of the advantages of collecting apps today; the technology is still around to enable visitors to engage and interact with them whilst they still can. Clive Thompson’s article raises similar questions to those I asked above, and equally is unable to provide definitive answers.

So, to return to the titular question – are apps appropriate for museum collections? As objects of contemporary cultural, social, and design significance, it seems sensible that museums try and preserve them for future generations. However, this creates a myriad of questions about the technicalities of collecting intangible objects – the answers to which seem to be more hypothetical than determined. Furthermore, I question whether apps belong in institutions such as the V&A or MoMA, who seem to prioritise the art and design element over other aspects such as gameplay.  They seem more suited to science or social history museums because of their role in contemporary culture and their technical nature. However, if displayed and explained with care, such digital acquisitions may have an interesting role to play in the future of museum collections.

Given that it’s still early days, evidence of its successes and appropriateness will come in time. Nevertheless, it might be wise to stop and work out the issues of technicalities before delving head first into this new digital world.

What will the acquired apps be able to teach future generations about the culture and society of the (current) past?

Should more museums seek to expand their collection of virtual media? What benefits might it have?


Antonelli, Paola. 29th November 2012. Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters [http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/11/29/video-games-14-in-the-collection-for-starters/], accessed 05/11/15.

Brownlee, John. 6th September 2013. To Preserve Digital Design, The Smithsonian Begins Collecting Apps [http://www.fastcodesign.com/3016595/to-preserve-digital-design-the-smithsonian-begins-collecting-apps#9], accessed 17/11/15.

Farmery, Jim. 12th Feb 2015. Creative England awarded £8m to boost the Creative Industries   [http://www.creativeengland.co.uk/story/creative-england-awarded-8m-to-boost-the-creative-industries], accessed 17/11/15.

Thompson, Clive. September 2013. How Does a Museum Acquire an iPad App for its Collections? [http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-does-a-museum-acquire-an-ipad-app-for-its-collections-880301/?no-ist], accessed 17/11/15.

Volsing, Kristian. 16th July 2014. The Rise and Fall of Flappy Bird and the Collectng of the V&A’s first App [http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/network/the-rise-and-fall-of-flappy-bird-and-the-collecting-of-the-vas-first-app], accessed 05/11/15.

The V&A’s mission statement [http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/v-and-a-mission-and-objectives/], accessed 17/11/15.

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“When is a gallery not a gallery? When it is a virtual, moveable feast.” Sophie Wilson, 2015.

Thinking about the differences between physical and digital museums and galleries, I decided to re-visit Eugene Dillenberg’s article What, if Anything, is a Museum?, which strongly argues that a museum can only be called a museum if it has a physical building and holds exhibitions.

Even though technology, museum practice, and public expectations are constantly evolving and changing, I believe that the core of museological practice is the relationship between the institution, the public, and the collection. Visiting an online museum or gallery provides a very different kind of visiting experience from its physical counterpart. Often, different platforms and applications are utilised to enable the public to explore and engage with the collections in new and exciting ways. If this is a medium through which an institution/public relationship can be developed and maintained, why shouldn’t they be allowed to define themselves in the same way as a physical museum? Should they be disregarded due to their lack of brickwork?

In part, I do understand and agree with Dillenberg’s views. Seeing a high-resolution image of a painting online does not fully prepare you for the emotional impact of standing in front of the real thing. Likewise, as is Walter Benjamin’s concern, a reproduction of an image (in this case, virtual) loses the tangible connection between human and object. But how does this apply to digital art? What if a piece of artwork only exists in a digital format, intended to be interacted with through a computer, smart phone, or tablet? Can it possess a ‘digital aura’? Is it possible to create a tangible relationship? Is the viewing platform its only connection to physical reality?

As a result of the Exhibiting Photography module, I am starting to view ‘art’ as being a conceptual term rather than a physical thing. By this definition, digital or virtual art will fall under the same scope of value and importance as physical art. Would it perhaps be more appropriate to use the word ‘museum’ in the same way, as a conceptual verb rather than a defining noun…?


Screenshot from: http://otdac.org/

In a recent ES Magazine article, there were interviews with ‘new curators’, who have developed alternative mediums through which to consume art – specifically digitally-produced work. The one which caught my attention was the conversation with Attilia Fattori Franchini, co-founder and curator (though the article refers to her as a “virtual gallerist”) of Opening Times. This is described as a ‘platform’ rather than a gallery, which commissions artists and holds a ‘collection’ of works. She emphasises that it remains open to the public 24/7 (bypassing the limitations of a physical museum’s visiting hours) and can be accessed at any time by anyone. Another interesting point she makes is how digital art is less popular with collectors due to its non-tangible nature. With this, Dillenberg’s, and Benjamin’s arguments in mind, how does a lack of physicality affect our relationship with the art? Does the viewing environment influence our opinions? Can you establish an emotional connection to something purely digital?

I personally do not find the Opening Times website to be particularly engaging, but perhaps this is because digital art and virtual galleries are still a new area for me. I found myself more drawn to the articles and essays on the site, rather than the artwork itself. I appreciate what Fattori Franchini is trying to achieve, but I think there is still a way to go before it is fully discoverable by the mainstream audience they want to attract. Currently I feel the concept is perhaps too exclusive and only for people who are ‘in the know’, but exposure in free publications will help to raise awareness and promote interest.

Given his very traditionalist viewpoint, I wonder whether Dillenberg feels the same way about virtual art as he does virtual museums. As the ES article shows, alternative mediums are continually being developed and explored, so perhaps it is time for a reconsideration of what a museum/gallery is and has the potential to be beyond brick or concrete walls. This can even be applied to art itself.

Should exclusively-online museums and galleries receive more promotion and funding?

Is it possible to create an emotional or tangible connection to a piece of digital art?


Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction’ In: Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison., eds. 1982. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. London, Harper & Row Ltd, pp.217-220.

Dillenburg, Eugene. January 2011. ‘What, if anything is a Museum?’ In: Exhibitionist Spring ’11. American Association of Museums, pp.8-13.

Opening Times: http://otdac.org/ [accessed 03/11/15].

Wilson, Sophie. 9th October 2015. ‘The New Exhibitionists’ In: Evening Standard Magazine. London (also available online: http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/esmagazine/new-exhibitionists-meet-the-london-curators-reinventing-the-way-we-consume-art-a3085631.html, accessed 05/11/15).

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Recently I visited Tate Modern to see The World Goes Pop exhibition. Having been to the Southbank site many times, I was already familiar with the commanding brick façade and vast interior spaces. Approaching the building from the riverside, you are faced with a very wide, very high wall; the people standing on the balconies above seem tiny and lost against the brick and glass. This imposing – and slightly intimidating – architecture of the converted power station could be seen as a reflection of the Tate’s significant and dominant presence in the art world. The entrance is indicated by signs for the current exhibitions and, as it was a Saturday afternoon, there were crowds aplenty.

Once inside, just past the gift shop, there was a lady in a bright coloured t-shirt standing with a clipboard, ready to give directions and answer questions. As the Turbine Hall was closed off for installation work, there were a lot of confused visitors blocking the doorways, trying to navigate to their chosen destination. With seven floors, there is a lot of ground to cover and this can seem quite daunting to both new and regular visitors alike. Despite the floor number being visible on both the stairwell and the lifts, it can be quite disconcerting trying to navigate the near-identical levels. Further still, the escalators only join alternating floors, which isn’t always apparent until it’s too late to step off. Tate tries to encourage use of the stairs to prevent over-crowding at the lifts, but this too can prove tricky as they are quite steep and narrow. In terms of signage, there are wall-mounted directions, and the occasional stand with purchasable maps. I don’t recall seeing many members of staff.

The Tate’s website, on the other hand, is much more straight-forward and traffic-free. With its white backgrounds and dark grey font (colour is reserved for images and the occasional underlining and highlighting), it is clean-cut, coherent, and easy to navigate. Each specific Tate site is given the same treatment, promoting a sense of unity and – perhaps more significantly for them – a cohesive brand, with the recognisable logo emblazoned at the top of every page. The drop-down column on the far left hand side replaces the lady in the bright t-shirt. It states clear headings, covering everything from opening times and school visits, to a comprehensive history of the Turbine Hall. It even has options for viewing the pages in French, German, Spanish, and Italian.

This current design was employed following a complete overhaul of the website in April 2012, as part of the 2010-2012 Online Strategy initiative (also coinciding with the revamp of Tate Britain). Using the Wayback Machine, it is curious to see the development of the site leading up to this point.

In the year 2000, when Tate Modern first opened its physical – and digital – doors, the websites used bright colours to distinguish between the four different sites. These colours formed the main background for the overlaying white text (which, for me personally, makes the writing very difficult to read). The detailed information given is almost identical to that displayed on the current website, under similar – if not the same – title headings.

2004 saw a layout change wherein the images and text were more bunched together. Combined with the bright coloured backgrounds, the overall look was rather cluttered and disjointed.  It was interesting to note the flags of alternative languages available to visitors, including British Sign Language. It’s understandable that as the contents of the website grows, it is near impossible to translate everything into every language, however it is a shame that BSL no longer seems to be included (or, if it is, it is not as easily visible on the homepage).

In some respects, a museum’s engagement with digital practice can be viewed as a comment on how they view themselves as an institution (as argued by Lianne McTavish). If a museum has an extensive array of digital activities, it suggests that this is an institution that pushes the boundaries of their basic role.

Although the definition of the “proper” role of a museum is constantly shifting, there is an expected duty to build and maintain a relationship with the public. Having a digital presence provides another platform on which this can be achieved, enabling further levels of didactic interaction with the collections. As museums are adapting to keep up-to-date with new generations and maintain relevance in an increasingly digital society, employing such techniques show a willingness to branch out and try new means of engagement.

The Tate is currently undergoing a transformation, aiming to integrate digital practice within every department. As dominating as this sounds, the digitisation is set to work in ‘parallel’ with its current work, not replace it. John Stack referred to the Tate’s website as being its ‘fifth site’, as great or important as any of the physical buildings. McTavish argues, however, that some museum websites are paradoxical because they seem to have contradictory aims, not unlike museums themselves [McTavish, 2006, p.229]. They seem to be confused with what they want to achieve and the overall impact this will have, losing their way in the process. Although this may be true of some museums, Tate’s strategy seems to have been well thought out in relation to their mission as an institution and the kind of audiences they are playing to.

Digital literacy and understanding will be a significant contributor to its success. Stack emphasised that such plans are often met with resistance from certain members of staff who are unfamiliar with social media/blogs/etc and are therefore reluctant to change their practice. For this reason, careful planning needs to take place before engaging too heavily in the digital. By trying to become more inclusive for online audiences, there is a risk of excluding those offline.  Not everyone is happy to embrace the digital, nor have the skills to do so.

For example, a museum that relies on retired volunteers to operate will not have the same capacity to branch out into the digital world. A tiny local museum I worked for a few years ago has only recently switched from dial-up internet to broadband. Even though sites such as Facebook and Twitter are free to access, you still need the familiarity and computer-confidence to use them effectively. An outdated, non-flashy website is perhaps commonplace for an outdated, non-flashy museum, but it doesn’t mean this is how the museum views itself. It may wish to get more involved but does not have the means to do so.

“In order to create a more joined-up approach to audiences, we need to connect our online audiences with our offline audiences…” (Finnis, Chan, and Clements, 2011, p.5.)

It may be easier said than done, but I agree with this to an extent. A good website and online presence may help to bring together a museum’s audience (both existing and potential), and can bring great benefits to the work of the institution and enhance its visitors’ experience.

However, it is worth remembering that every museum is unique, and will therefore need to devise strategies that are suited for their individual goals and requirements, as well as the needs for their particular audience. It might be too easy to delve into the digital world without having a set intention for what you want to achieve. Perhaps if a museum’s typical audience is generally ‘offline’ (being in a town with a largely retired population, for example), there is little need to invest heavily in technological practice. It could be used for advertisement or as a way of reaching out to younger generations but, depending on the individual circumstances, this might not be a beneficial use of resources.

So yes, in essence, connecting audiences through the shared medium of technology may result in a more all-encompassed work practice, but this will not necessary apply to everyone. Perhaps it will become clearer as we look at more case studies throughout the module, but the relationship between a museum and it digital work is bigger and more complex than it initially seems…

Are small museums in danger of being left behind during the impending digital revolution?

Should more be done to teach museum staff about ways of communicating online, and how to utilise this in order to reach out to the public and build on the museum/visitor relationship?


Finnis, J., Chan, S., Clements, R. 2011. How to evaluate online success? [http://www.keepandshare.com/doc/3148919/culture24‐ howtoevaluateonlinesuccess‐bw‐pdf‐september‐19‐2011‐11‐15‐ am‐2‐1‐meg?da=y], accessed 08 October 2015.

McTavish, L. 2006. ‘Visiting the Virtual Museum: Art and Experience Online’. In Marstine, J., (ed) New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Stack, J. Spring 2013. ‘Tate Digital Strategy 2013–15: Digital as a Dimension of Everything’, in: Tate Papers, no.19, [http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/19/tate-digital-strategy-2013-15-digital-as-a-dimension-of-everything], accessed 10 October 2015.

Stack, J. Spring 2010. ‘Tate Online Strategy 2010–12’, in: Tate Papers, no.13, [http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/13/tate-online-strategy-2010-12], accessed 10 October 2015.

Stack, J. ‘The Digital Museum’, presentation given 03 November 2014.

Unknown. Date unknown. About Tate’s Website [http://www.tate.org.uk/about/our-work/digital/about-website], accessed 10 October 2015.

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