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 However, in a decade’s time, this current technology will become outdated – and so the cycle begins again.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.